Merkel looks to kick off super election year with state win

17th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

The two sides have been bound together in an unwieldy "grand coalition" since 2005 and are now facing down Germany's worst postwar recession together.

Berlin -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives look set to sail to victory in a key state election this weekend, kicking off an action-packed voting year expected to propel her to a second term.

Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) will face off against the Social Democrats (SPD) in an election Sunday in Hesse, home to Germany's business capital Frankfurt, and polls predict a clear conservative win.

The two sides have been bound together in an unwieldy "grand coalition" since 2005 and are now facing down Germany's worst postwar recession together.

But with 16 elections to come this year on the regional, state, national and European level, the trick will be to press on with the business of running Europe's biggest economy at the same time they try to clobber each other in the polls.

The awkwardness of this arrangement was underlined this week at two joint appearances between Merkel and her Social Democratic challenger in September, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

They came together at a news conference and before parliament a new 50-billion-euro (66-billion-dollar) economic stimulus package hammered out by their two sides in a bid to pull Germany out of the economic mire.

The country's top-selling Bild newspaper noted that what normally would have been hand-to-hand combat turned into a bizarre show of unity.

"It could have been a duel but their statements ended up a duet; some SPD members think Steinmeier should take off his kid gloves -- he could have questioned Merkel's leadership capability," wrote Bild. "But it didn't come to this; Steinmeier spoke of an "alliance of reason." Evidently Merkel and Steinmeier were not interested in party-political spats."

Opinion polls show that on Sunday in Hesse, Merkel's conservatives will clinch more than 40 percent and secure a clear ruling majority with their partner of choice, the pro-business Free Democrats.

The Social Democrats, polling at just 25 percent, look set for a historic defeat.

"It's a debacle foretold," said political scientist Oskar Niedermayer of Berlin's Free University.

He said although it is expected, a humiliating defeat could have a "psychological effect" and throw the SPD off its game in the upcoming races.

"The SPD runs the risk of piling up disastrous electoral results every two or three months which could have an impact on the outcome of the general election" on September 27, Niedermayer said.

Hesse is already scorched earth for the Social Democrats.

After an election last January in the western state, the SPD's chief candidate Andrea Ypsilanti aimed to form a coalition with the Greens but also rely on the far-left party, Die Linke (The Left), for votes -- breaking a campaign pledge not to work with the outfit.

Her attempt to form a government ultimately failed months later due to a few rogue Social Democrats who withdrew their support, saying their "consciences" could not allow them to give the new government the green light.

The SPD's dealings with the Die Linke, a loose-knit grouping of former East German communists and disaffected Social Democrats, have taken on a national dimension, helping lead to the downfall of party leader Kurt Beck.

Steinmeier has ruled out working with the Die Linke on the national level after the general election but has given his blessing to link-ups in the 16 federal states.

"The SPD's two-track approach at the national and regional level risks exacerbating its credibility problem" because voters will never know with whom they may govern, said Viola Neu, an analyst at the conservative Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

The governing parties would like to divorce after September, with the Christian Democrats seeking a coalition with the Free Democrats (FDP) and the SPD aiming for a ruling majority with the Greens.

But polls show the conservatives far ahead and able to win with the FDP by a comfortable margin.

Francis Curta/AFP/Expatica

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