Boring is best in German state elections
The CDU's Roland Koch trails behind an obscure Social Democrat.
Berlin (dpa) - Andrea Ypsilanti, a little-known German Social Democrat (SPD) politician, has come from nowhere to mount a strong challenge in Sunday's state election in Hesse.
Despite the twin handicaps of relative obscurity and membership of a party that trails Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) in the national polls by a considerable margin, Ypsilanti is preferred by most voters in the western state over CDU incumbent Roland Koch.
In neighbouring Lower Saxony - also electing a new state government on Sunday - the situation is reversed, with CDU incumbent Christian Wulff well ahead of his SPD challenger, Wolfgang Juettner.
Ypsilanti and Wulff have little in common, but political commentators agree that one quality unites them: they are both rather boring.
The combative Koch, a CDU heavyweight with a strong national profile, is anything but.
He has used a couple of unpleasant instances of violent crime committed by youthful foreigners to demand a toughening of youth offenders legislation in strident tones.
That tactic may well have backfired. After being written off early in the campaign, Ypsilanti's SPD drew level with the CDU on 38 percent in a Forsa poll published just five days before the elections.
In sharp contrast to Koch's aggressive campaign, Ypsilanti has been plugging away on classic SPD themes: touring the youth clubs in downmarket parts of Frankfurt talking about education, integration of ethnic minorities, low wages and social equity.
In the personal popularity stakes, she is a full 10 percentage points clear of Koch, although this will count for little on Sunday.
In Lower Saxony, Wulff's campaign is based on presenting himself as the reliable incumbent.
He has carefully avoided nailing down his position on the key questions of the day in Germany, such as passing a minimum wage bill or providing all-day care for the children of working parents.
An attempt by his SPD opponent Juettner to introduce controversy by highlighting the recent break-up of Wulff's marriage and the fact that his mistress is pregnant has backfired badly.
Juettner's foray into gutter politics broke a longstanding German taboo and found little favour with his boss, SPD national chairman Kurt Beck.
In tacit acknowledgement of his mistake during a televised debate Wednesday, Juettner carefully backtracked while refusing to apologise. He would concentrate on the core political themes, he pledged.
The two state elections are being seen as a dry run for the federal elections, which must be held by September 2009.
The main themes are national, rather than regional, and the outcome is being seen as a test of how Merkel's grand coalition, which joins the CDU and SPD, has fared over the past two years.
Political heavyweights have joined the fray, sensing that much more is at stake than forming the state governments in Hesse and Lower Saxony, both in western Germany.
Merkel sprang to Koch's side, despite her reservations on his demands for stiffer punishment for young offenders.
She also ruled out a broad CDU-SPD coalition in Hesse of the kind she heads at federal level in Berlin. "That would be simply impossible with a person like Mrs. Ypsilanti," Merkel said.
But she acknowledged the evident tensions between two parties slugging it out at state level while having to cooperate in the national government.
Surveying the battleground less than a fortnight before polling Sunday, Merkel noted wryly: "Each one adopts their own style, and I keep a close watch, sometimes with greater nervousness and sometimes with less."
Another heavyweight has jumped into the Hesse election in the shape of Greens Party politician and former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, who indicated two years ago he was leaving politics for good.
Fischer flayed Koch, for what he termed "xenophobia" during a Greens rally in the week ahead of polling day. "A premier like this needs to be voted out of office," he said.
Political observers are also closely watching the fortunes of the Left Party, which draws its main support in the formerly communist eastern states and is regarded as a pariah by the main parties.
In the west, the Left has managed to gain seats at state level only in the city-state of Bremen.
But the polls in Hesse and Lower Saxony indicate support hovering around the 5-percent hurdle that the party needs to surmount in order to be allocated seats.
If the Left does manage this in both states, this would signal the first major shake-up in the German electoral landscape since the Greens burst on the scene in the early 1980s.
Come Sunday evening, Ypsilanti could yet find herself faced with the awkward question of breaking an SPD taboo and forming a government based on tolerance by the Left.