Amid widespread discontent with Mr Schroder’s cutbacks to national welfare programs, his Social Democrat party got just 30.5 per cent of the vote – its worst result in the key port city since World War II.
The conservative Christian Democrats secured 47.2 per cent of the vote, up 21 percentage points from the last poll in 2001, and will have an absolute majority in the Hamburg state legislature.
The ballot was seen as a crucial first test for Mr Schroder at the start of a heavy election year.
The Social Democrats face 14 elections – state, local, regional, presidential and European – in which each defeat will signal a weakening of Mr Schroder’s power.
The popular mood is strongly against his cuts to the health, welfare and labour systems. How far the Social Democrats will have to pay at the ballot box for their attempt to make the engine of Europe’s economy more competitive remains to be seen.