Merkel braces in Berlin for latest poll blow
Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition faced a stinging setback Sunday as Berlin's voters headed for the polls in a state election likely to weaken Germany's leader as she battles Europe's debt crisis.
Polls show Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) will be beaten into second or maybe third place in the regional election, with the colourful Social Democrat mayor Klaus Wowereit expected to sail to a third term.
While the CDU was never likely to top the poll in the left-leaning capital, there could be another electoral debacle in the offing for her junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), who may crash out of the state legislature.
Polls opened at 8:00 am (0600 GMT), with 2.5 million called to vote. Generally reliable exit polls will be published when the ballot boxes close at 6:00 pm.
According to election supervisor Petra Michaelis-Merzbach, turnout was poised to be lower this year than five years ago, with heavy rain lashing the German capital.
At 12:00 pm, only 19.1 percent of the registered voters had cast their ballot compared to 22.3 percent at the same time in 2006, when the eventual turnout was 58 percent.
If the polls are confirmed, the result in Berlin would cap a disastrous election year for Merkel, who has come under fire for her handling of the eurozone debt crisis and failure to quell squabbling within her coalition.
The chancellor, named the most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine last month, has failed to rein in unruly FDP members who have threatened to torpedo a key parliamentary vote on the crisis later this month.
Observers say the FDP may grow even more rebellious after a debacle in Berlin, following a further poll disaster earlier this month in Merkel's home state in which it was even trounced by the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party.
This time it is the Pirate Party which may well oust the venerable FDP, which has served in most post-war German governments.
An irreverent outfit with roots in Scandinavia, the Pirate Party calls for free wireless Internet service for all, unlimited access to public transportation funded by taxes and better data protection.
Under intense pressure, the FDP candidate Christoph Meyer has drawn applause on the campaign trail by openly railing against Merkel's euro policy, charging she had "failed to plot a clear strategy" over the last 18 turbulent months.
This came after the FDP leader, Economy Minister and Vice Chancellor Philipp Roesler, repeatedly defied Merkel last week by speculating about an "orderly default" by debt-mired Greece, sending the euro into a tailspin.
The influential weekly Die Zeit said that the FDP was playing with fire by taking a strong anti-bailout line.
"It would be disastrous for Roesler if the eurosceptics prevailed (in the FDP). It would probably be the end of black-yellow," it wrote on its website Friday, referring to Merkel's centre-right coalition.
Meanwhile the Social Democrats, the biggest opposition party at the national level, hope the Berlin vote can give it a boost on the road to the 2013 general election.
As the final vote in this marathon electoral year, the Berlin poll "will particularly have a symbolic impact with the expected re-election of a Social Democrat in the Federal capital," political commentator Gerd Langguth said.
The 57-year-old hugely popular Wowereit has run a smooth, gaffe-free campaign for a third term in Berlin.
Currently in a coalition with the far-left Linke party, he may opt this time for a tie-up with the Greens, who have surged in popularity since Japan's Fukushima catastrophe in March due to their anti-nuclear stance.
Backers say Wowereit has helped turn Berlin's weaknesses into strengths, famously calling the cash-strapped capital "poor but sexy" for attracting hordes of tourists and creative types to one of Europe's most affordable cities.
But with a 13-percent jobless rate -- nearly double the national average -- and a staggering 62-billion-euro ($86-billion) mountain of debt more than two decades after the Berlin Wall fell, critics say the city needs a major economic overhaul.
© 2011 AFP