Key state could punish Merkel over Greece in Sunday poll
Chancellor Angela Merkel faces an election in Germany's most populous state Sunday which could see voters vent anger over a giant Greek aid package and cost her the upper house of parliament.
Merkel's conservatives and the pro-business Free Democrats, coalition partners in Berlin, are struggling to maintain their five-year-old alliance in the western region of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).
With 13.5 million voters called to the polls, the election could be an alarming bellwether for Merkel as her centre-right coalition has seen its popularity ratings plunge since taking office in October.
Influential news weekly Die Zeit's website has called the NRW race "the mini national election".
The race has also taken on an international dimension as it has played out in the shadow of the ballooning Greek debt crisis, in which Germany has been called upon to pay out the lion's share of a 110-billion-euro (143-billion-dollar) bail-out, with 22.4 billion euros over three years.
Voters are fuming over the package, while Germany's partners have accused Merkel of foot-dragging because of the NRW election and ultimately driving up the cost of the rescue.
"Greece is the number-one issue in the campaign," NRW state premier Juergen Ruettgers of Merkel's conservatives said Monday.
Ruettgers' analysis may be an attempt to deflect blame in the event of a poor showing Sunday, but the issue has weighed heavily on the conservatives' support.
A poll Wednesday showed Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) slipping two points at the national level to 34 percent with the opposition Social Democrats and the Greens gaining.
Her coalition partners, the Free Democrats, are stuck on just eight percent with government zig-zagging on tax policy and the deeply unpopular deployment in Afghanistan striking negative chords.
Meanwhile 48 percent of voters are dissatisfied with Merkel's performance over Greece, the poll by independent opinion research institute Forsa said.
"Unlike in the banking crisis a year and a half ago, the chancellor has not been a rock of stability, giving people confidence and direction in the crisis," Forsa chief Manfred Guellner said.
Complicating matters in NRW is a so-called "Rent-a-Ruettgers" scandal in which his staff offered private conversations with the premier in exchange for donations of 6,000 euros. Ruettgers has denied knowledge of the practice.
Polls in NRW show both the centre-right and the potential centre-left coalition likely to come up short Sunday, which will make the score of the far-left Die Linke pivotal.
If the centre-right loses NRW, home to the Ruhr industrial heartland which has suffered bitterly in the recession, Merkel's alliance would cede its dominance in the Bundesrat upper house and see key legislation stymied.
With a raft of major issues on her to-do list, from reforming the tax and health systems to reversing plans to mothball the country's nuclear power plants, she would be forced to cooperate with the opposition.
Underlining the poll's importance, Merkel scheduled 15 personal appearances in NRW and has staged a media blitz this week.
"North Rhine-Westphalia has always been a seismograph for national politics," said political scientist Gerd Langguth at the University of Bonn.
At the last poll in 2005, then chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called a new national election when his alliance of Social Democrats and Greens lost in NRW and he saw his own grip on power threatened.
"If the CDU loses power, the political air will grow thinner for Ms Merkel," Langguth said.
"This is the first election since the federal poll (in September). Voters will be handing out grades and so this is a test for her."
Although Merkel's room for manoeuvre is on the line, Nils Diedrich of Berlin's Free University told AFP her job was safe.
"Merkel is still too strong to throw in the towel."
© 2010 AFP