Germany's most populous state will hold early elections after its minority government narrowly failed to get a budget passed Wednesday _ a prospect that could boost the country's center-left opposition.
All 181 members of the state legislature in North Rhine-Westphalia voted to dissolve it. That means a new regional election must be held within 60 days, although no date was immediately set.
North Rhine-Westphalia, a western region of some 18 million people that includes Cologne and the Ruhr industrial region, is governed by the center-left Social Democrats and Greens.
The vote Wednesday came hours after a budget proposal from the state government fell one vote short of a majority. Center-right opponents have accused it of poor financial management and demanded more belt-tightening.
Polls suggest Social Democratic Governor Hannelore Kraft and her coalition could benefit from the new election, which comes three years ahead of schedule. Those parties are in opposition nationally to Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right government, but state governments wield influence in highly federalized Germany _ not the least via the upper house of parliament, where they are represented.
Kraft's center-left alliance took power in 2010, replacing a coalition of Merkel's conservatives and the pro-market Free Democrats _ the parties that form the national government.
Both voted against the new budget Wednesday because they wanted to reduce the state's borrowing.
Merkel said new elections offered a prospect to elect "a government that won't obstruct the state's opportunities by taking on ever more debt."
Norbert Roettgen, the local chairman of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union who is also her federal environment minister, said he would lead its bid to take back the state.
But that looks like an uphill struggle. Polls suggest Kraft's coalition has a good chance of winning a majority and that the Free Democrats will struggle to win the 5 percent needed to keep their seats.
The Free Democrats, battered by their failure to win tax cuts, already are in danger of being ejected from two other state parliaments in votes over the next two months.
Elections in North Rhine-Westphalia won't have a direct effect on the federal government. But an election campaign may prove a distraction, with national elections due in the fall of 2013.
The state elections will send "an important signal for the 2013 election at federal level," said one Green leader, Claudia Roth.
National polls currently show a majority neither for Merkel's center-right coalition nor for the Social Democrats and Greens, who ran Germany from 1998 to 2005.