Merkel starts election year in pole position with state vote
Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) are facing off against the Social Democrats for the top spot in Hesse, home to Germany's finance capital Frankfurt.
Berlin -- Voters in the German state of Hesse began casting ballots Sunday at the start of a marathon election year expected to propel Chancellor Angela Merkel to a second term.
Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) are facing off against the Social Democrats (SPD) for the top spot in Hesse, home to Germany's finance capital Frankfurt.
Some 4.4 million people are called to the polls and surveys predict a clear win for the chancellor's party.
The conservatives and the SPD have been bound together at the national level in a fractious "grand coalition" since 2005 and are now together grappling with the country's worst postwar recession.
But with 16 elections planned this year on the regional, state, national and European level, the trick has been to press on with the business of running Europe's biggest economy at the same time they go head-to-head at 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 to defend a new 50-billion-euro (66-billion-dollar) economic stimulus package hammered out by their two sides in a bid to pull the economy out of the mire.
However a poll published Sunday in Bild am Sonntag newspaper indicated that Germans are highly sceptical about the measures, with 90 percent saying they doubted whether they would personally benefit from the plan.
Meanwhile 61 percent doubted the package would help end the recession, according to the survey of 1,003 people by the independent TNS-Emnid institute.
Despite the crippling slowdown, the Christian Democrats as senior partners in the federal government appear not to be paying the price with voters, thanks largely to internal squabbling among the Social Democrats.
Opinion polls suggest Merkel's conservatives will win re-election in Hesse with more than 40 percent of the vote and secure a decisive ruling majority with their preferred partners, the pro-business Free Democrats.
The SPD, polling at less than 25 percent, look set for a historic defeat.
"It's a debacle foretold," said political scientist Oskar Niedermayer of Berlin's Free University.
Although it was expected, a humiliating defeat could still have a "psychological effect" and throw the SPD off its game in the upcoming races, he said.
"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 SPD after an inconclusive election one year ago.
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 for votes -- breaking a campaign pledge not to work with the outfit.
The bid failed when four rogue Social Democrats withdrew their support, saying their "consciences" would not allow them to vote for the new government.
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 last year to the ouster of party leader Kurt Beck.
Steinmeier has ruled out working with the Die Linke on the federal level but has given his blessing to link-ups in the 16 states.
This time Die Linke risks falling short of the five-percent hurdle required for representation in the Hesse state legislature.
Exit poll results are due at 17:00 GMT with preliminary official results expected soon after.