Chancellor Angela Merkel's Bavarian ally, the Christian Social Union (CSU) suffered setbacks in municipal elections in the southern German state of Bavaria, where the party has ruled since 1957.
Two Social Democratic Party (SPD) incumbents won the mayoralties of Bavaria's biggest cities, Munich and Nuremberg, with increased majorities, early results showed on Monday, March 3.
Sunday's polls were viewed as a first test for Guenther Beckstein, the CSU premier of Bavaria, and the party leader, Erwin Huber, who took over the top positions five months ago, succeeding long-time leader Edmund Stoiber.
They are expected to maintain power at state-assembly elections scheduled for late September.
Losing support in big cities
However, the in support for the CSU may represent the beginning of a change in political opinion after its half a century of power in the conservative state. The CSU visibly lost urban support Sunday in the big cities, which are SPD islands in a CDU sea.
Munich's mayor, Christian Ude, gained 2 percent to win with 67 percent of votes ahead of CSU challenger's 25 percent, exit polls said. Nuremberg SPD incumbent Ulrich Maly gained 8 percent to win with 64 percent of the vote in provisional results.
Merkel's party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has no organization in Bavaria and treats the CSU as its sister party, pursuing mostly the same policies and forming a joint caucus in federal politics.
Climate "not so good" for CSU
In an initial comment, Bavarian Environment Minister Otmar Bernhard said his party's setback in the mayoral races reflected a turn of sentiment nationally against the CDU and CSU, with the climate for both "not so good."
Beckstein said his party would not try to boost its profile by taking a more aggressive stance in federal politics, despite the losses.
"We are in a grand coalition and it's not so easy just to go on the offensive," Beckstein said in an interview with Germany's Rbb-Inforadio.
He acknowledged that the bitter losses for his party in Munich and Nuremberg were "surprisingly high, and painful."
A detailed tally from the many municipalities and counties was not expected for several days. In 2002, the CSU took 46 percent of the local-body votes to the SPD's 25 percent.
Reconnaissance flights and more joint exercises in Central Europe serve to reassure NATO members in the region, but critics say the crisis in Ukraine shows the alliance's relations with Russia need a dramatic rethink.
The Group of Seven industrialized nations has told Russia to halt Sunday's referendum aimed at annexing Crimea from Ukraine. The G7 says if Russia proceeds it will take "further action."
German trade group BGA says sanctions against Moscow will hit businesses here but might be life-threatening to the Russian economy. 2014 growth in German trade will hinge on the outcome of the Ukraine crisis, it claims.