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More than six million voters are called to the polls in the German state of Lower Saxony Sunday, kicking off a general election year with high stakes for Chancellor Angela Merkel and the opposition.
The election of a new parliament in Lower Saxony, home to European auto giant Volkswagen and run by the same centre-right alliance with which Merkel governs in Berlin, will set the tone for the hard-fought national campaign.
"You always have national political aspects during an election (in one of Germany's 16 states) but that is especially the case with Lower Saxony," political scientist Oskar Niedermayer at Berlin's Free University said.
Three factors will keep all eyes on the results late Sunday: the future of a potential Merkel successor, the fate of Merkel's coalition partner party and its beleaguered leader, and the prospects of her chief opponent.
Lower Saxony state premier David McAllister, a genial, half-Scottish Christian Democrat (CDU), belongs to a dwindling group of people seen as capable of filling Merkel's shoes when she exits the political stage.
Given her record popularity, McAllister has stuck close to his chancellor on the campaign trail, even telling supporters he is proud to be "Merkel's Mac".
His ailing coalition partners, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), could prove to be his downfall, however, just as their weakness has the potential to torpedo Merkel at the September general election if her opponents joined forces.
If the FDP fails to clear the five-percent hurdle required for seats in parliament, then its embattled leader Philipp Roesler, who is also Merkel's vice chancellor, may be forced to step down.
The final national figure who will be on the edge of his seat as the results roll in is Merkel's chief rival in the general election, the gaffe-prone Peer Steinbrueck of the opposition Social Democrats (SPD).
If the SPD and their preferred partners the Greens manage to unseat McAllister and the FDP, Steinbrueck could begin shoring up his battered campaign and pose a viable threat to the mighty Merkel.
But if he fails, the impression that her victory in September is inevitable will harden.
"Roesler can only hope to remain in power if the Black-Yellow government secures a majority," news weekly Die Zeit wrote in its Thursday issue, referring to the coalition of the CDU with the FDP.
"A Black-Yellow victory in Lower Saxony would be devastating for Red-Green -- the ruinous force of a defeat would very quickly lead to an uncontrollable debate about the chancellor candidate," it said of the centre-left tie-up.
Several newspapers said that a bitter loss for the Social Democrats could even prompt them to reconsider their choice of candidate at this relatively late date.
"You almost hope that Steinbrueck's team suffers a bitter defeat in the Lower Saxony election, as this might be the wake-up call it needs," the conservative daily Die Welt said.
After Lower Saxony, only one of Germany's 16 federal states is expected to vote before the general election: Bavaria, where the ruling conservatives risk heavy losses.
© 2013 AFP
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