Berlin: Germany`s Greens for the first time on Sunday overtook the conservatives in a regional election, another drubbing for Angela Merkel`s party whose support has ebbed in all five polls held so far this year.
Two more regional elections will be held in September, one of them in Berlin.
The Social-Democrats (SPD) and their Green allies will be returned to power following Sunday`s contest in Bremen, the smallest of Germany`s 16 states, according to projections based on exit polls.
Final results will not be known for several days because of a complicated ballot counting system.
The result had been widely expected in this north German city-port which has been run by the SDP for the past 66 years.
But it was the Greens who caused a surprise by pushing the conservative Christian-Democrats (CDU) into third place.
The SPD scored 38.3 percent of the vote, compared to 36.7 in the 2007 election, according to projections issued by ARD public television at 8 pm (18H00 GMT).
The Greens scored 22.8 percent, up 6.3 percent compared to 2007.
The CDU won 20.2 percent, down 5.4 percent on the previous election.
The Free Democrats (FDP), allied to the conservatives in Chancellor Merkel`s federal government, only managed 3.3 percent of the vote, below the 5-percent barrier needed to send representatives to the local assembly.
"For the first time in the history of the German Federal Republic, we are ahead of the CDU in a regional election," said one of the Green federal leaders Claudia Roth.
"The result is a difficult one for us," the CDU`s federal parliamentary faction leader Peter Altmaier acknowledged on television.
"Unfortunately it reflects what opinion polls have said for weeks," he added.
"Bremen has traditionally always been a difficult for the CDU," he conceded.
"We find ourselves in a difficult environment," he added pointing to the support gained by the Greens in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in March in Japan.
Merkel announced a moratorium on the development of nuclear power in Germany, along with the emergency closing of five of the oldest power plants, but this has failed to rally support for her embattled coalition.
"Just think of Fukushima, of the economic situation with the banking crisis and the crisis that has hit some states such as Greece," Altmaier said.
"This all heavily impacts a ruling party," he added.
Merkel has found herself severely criticised for her handling of the international financial crisis, with many Germans fearful they will be left to pay for the bail out of debt-ridden Greece.
"It`s a bitter result," said Rita Mohr-Luellmann, who headed the CDU in Bremen.
The CDU`s setback follows four other regional elections this year, all of which saw Merkel`s party lose voter support.
In March, the CDU even lost Baden-Wuerttemberg, a southwestern state which it had governed for nearly six decades.
The FDP, for its part, has gone from bad to worse, failing to win seats in three of five state elections.
While the federal government has already lost control of the Bundesrat upper house of Parliament, made up of representatives from the regional states, it still has a solid majority in the lower house (Bundestag).
The election in Bremen marked the first time that 16- and 17-year-olds were allowed to vote in a German regional election.
Electors have to be aged at least 18 to vote in other regional or federal elections, even though 16-year-olds can already vote in municipal elections in seven states.
But despite lowering of the voter age, turnout in Bremen dropped from just over 57 to 54 percent.