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In rebuke to Merkel, Germans choose social democrats

BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party suffered a stinging defeat in elections in Germany’s most populous state on Sunday, one likely to embolden her political opponents both at home and abroad as the European debt crisis enters a critical new phase.

One week after Socialists seized the French presidency, the Social Democrats won the parliamentary election in North Rhine-Westphalia, early results and exit polls released Sunday showed. Norbert Rottgen, the lead candidate for Merkel’s Christian Democrats in the state, conceded defeat and said he would be stepping down as the head of the party there.

Exit polls for German public television showed the Social Democrats winning 39.1 percent of the vote, an increase of 4.6 percentage points from two years earlier.

While the results were not official, the party was likely to achieve a double-digit margin of victory. The Christian Democrats won just 26.3 percent of the vote, 8.3 percentage points less than in the previous election.

—Nicholas Kulish, The New York Times

China’s political turmoil won’t delay new leadership

BEIJING — Despite a spectacular political scandal and swirling rumors of high-level infighting, signs are that China’s once-in-a-decade leadership change is still on track for this autumn, according to party insiders and observers.

The change, which will take place at the Communist Party’s 18th Congress, was scheduled last year for the second half of this year.

Over the weekend, the party’s flagship newspaper People’s Daily reported in its overseas edition — which is written for foreign consumption — that this timetable will be met.

The article came after some foreign news media predicted that the Congress would be delayed.

—Ian Johnson, The New York Times

Palestinian prisoners sign deal and end their hunger strike

JERUSALEM — Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails ended a hunger strike Monday that had lasted for weeks, signing an agreement with the Israeli authorities that promised improved conditions, according to officials. The end of the strike calmed fears of widespread unrest in the event of a prisoner’s death.

“There is an agreement — the strike is over,” Sivan Weizman, a spokeswoman for the Israel Prison Service, said by telephone Monday evening.

Qadura Fares, the president of the Palestinian Prisoners Society, based in Ramallah in the West Bank, said that the agreement was reached by prison leaders on behalf of all the Palestinian factions.

Israel said that Egypt and Jordan had played roles in helping to end the strike.

Among other provisions, the Israeli authorities said, the agreement calls for prisoners now in solitary confinement to be returned to the general prison population and for family visits to resume for prisoners from Gaza, which is under the control of Hamas, the more radical of the major Palestinian factions.

—Isabel Kershner, The New York Times