German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party easily won a regional election Sunday, dealing an early blow to centre-left hopes of ending her more than decade-long reign.

In the Saarland state vote held six months before a general election, Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) won 40 percent against 30 percent for the Social Democrats (SPD), according to early results by public broadcasters.

The result spelt a five-point boost for the CDU over the SPD, which has served as the unhappy junior partner to the conservatives in so-called grand coalitions at both the state and national levels.

The vote in the tiny state on the French border, which has a population of only one million, was seen as a bellwether ahead of the September 24 general election in which Merkel, the veteran leader often dubbed “the Queen of Europe”, will seek a fourth term.

The SPD have made strong gains in national opinion surveys since Martin Schulz, the folksy and plain-spoken former president of the European Parliament, took over in January.

The “Schulz effect” has seen especially younger voters flock to the more than 150-year-old workers’ party, which is now polling neck-and-neck at the national level with Merkel’s conservative bloc.

But the new euphoria did not translate into the strong results the SPD had hoped for in Saarland, a former coal mining region, which held the first of three German state polls scheduled in the run-up to the national election.

Schulz conceded it was “not a nice evening” and that “the CDU clearly won” but insisted that “our goal is a change of federal government” this year, calling the campaign until then “a marathon, not a sprint”.

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