Merkel ally battles to keep power in German state election

21st January 2008, Comments 0 comments

Hesse leader Roland Koch is falling in the polls.

Berlin (dpa) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) face a crucial midterm test in forthcoming state elections in Hesse.

Premier Roland Koch could be out of a job on the evening of January 27 when the results are announced.

A poll published Friday showed a sharp decline in the fortunes of the conservative Christian party to 38 percent from the almost 49 percent it achieved in 2003.

Its main challenger, the Social Democrats (SPD), Merkel's junior coalition partner at federal level, scored 37 percent.

The CDU's preferred coalition partner, the liberal FDP, is on 8 percent, leaving Koch still well short of a majority.

Analysts believe Koch's combative campaigning style has won him few friends.

The premier has put youth crime - and particularly violent crime committed by young foreigners - at the centre of his re-election campaign, following a series of recent incidents.

The SPD's candidate, Andrea Ypsilanti, has shrugged off charges that her campaign is "boring."

"I stand for a completely different political culture," she said while on a tour of youth clubs in the region.

Education, integration of ethnic minorities, low wages and social equity are classic SPD themes which Ypsilanti - a relative political unknown in Germany thus far - has addressed.

The poll found her well ahead of Koch in the personal popularity stakes, scoring 46 percent to his 36.

Koch stuck to his scare tactics, warning that the Left Party - a political pariah in western Germany - could hold the balance if it scrapes over the 5-per-cent hurdle, as the poll suggested it would.

"The poll results are very, very close," he told an election rally. "The Left could tip the scales."

With the SPD's preferred coalition partner, the Greens on 8 percent, analysts say Ypsilanti could be tempted by a so-called "red- red-green" combination, although both SPD and Greens were ruling it out ahead of the elections.

But perhaps the most interesting statistic in the poll was the number of undecided voters. With little more than a week to election day, 43 percent were unsure of how they would vote.

After initially appearing to distance herself from Koch's call for more severe handling of youth offenders, Merkel sprang to his side, telling a local CDU rally Thursday: "The main thing is zero tolerance for violence, no matter where it comes from."

Merkel added she was in favour of toughening youth crime legislation "in some respects."

The closely fought election has drawn another political heavyweight into the fray.

Former foreign minister Joschka Fischer, who had apparently abandoned politics for good after he lost office in the September 2005 federal elections, phoned the Hesse Greens to offer his services.

Fischer is to address a Greens rally in the state on Monday in the hope of toppling Koch and installing the Greens in power alongside the SPD.

By contrast the state election in Lower Saxony on the same day is a low-key affair. The poll gave the CDU 46 percent and its current coalition partner, the FDP, 7.

Although both parties were slightly down from their 2003 result, Merkel ally Christian Wulff is seen as likely to hold on to office.

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