Christian Democratic Party candidate for State Governor Juergen Ruettgers, left, and his wife Angelika cast their votes in Cologne

Exit polls suggest that Germany's ruling coalition suffered a major defeat Sunday in the nation's most populous state, ruled by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's party for the past 39 years.

Exit polls conducted by state television stations in North Rhine - Westphalia showed the opposition Christian Democrats with 45 percent of the vote, beating Mr. Schroeder's Social Democrats by more than seven points.

The chair of Mr. Schroeder's party, Franz Muentefering, reacted by suggesting that federal parliamentary elections be held this year, one year ahead of schedule.

The Social Democrats have lost a string of local elections, and Sunday's election has been seen as a test of his party's strength going into the next national election.

Unemployment is high in North Rhine-Westphalia, and the Chancellor's social welfare reforms have been unpopular.

Some information for this report provided by Reuters and AP.