Voters in one of Germany’s most indebted states go to the polls today in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s first electoral test since she coaxed European leaders into a pact to limit budget deficits.
Saarland, a region governed by Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union that borders France and Luxembourg, is holding the first of three state votes in eight weeks that may give indications of her chances of winning a third term in federal elections due in Europe’s largest economy by the fall of 2013.
Polls suggest a dead heat in Saarland between her CDU and the Social Democrats, the main opposition group, meaning the election may produce a “grand coalition” of the two biggest parties in the state and nationally. Merkel’s first government from 2005 to 2009 was a grand coalition with the SPD. Polls close at 6 p.m. Berlin time.
“Germans are consensus-oriented,” Manfred Guellner, head of the Berlin-based Forsa polling company, said in a phone interview. “It would be smart for both the Christian Democrats and the SPD to get used to the idea” of a grand coalition.
Merkel’s approval ratings have risen this year to the highest level since her re-election in 2009 as she pushed for fiscal austerity across the euro area while swinging Germany behind a second bailout for Greece to keep the currency union from splintering. Leaders of 25 of the 27 European Union countries signed the German-inspired fiscal pact on March 2.
Yet Merkel’s coalition ally, the Free Democratic Party, has slumped from 14.6 percent in the last national election in 2009 to as low as 2 percent this year. Polls now suggest it won’t win seats in the three state parliaments being chosen through May.
“It doesn’t take much fantasy to see that every single vote will count on Sunday,” Merkel told a Saarland election rally in Dillingen on March 23. “Get up. Have breakfast. Go to church if you want, but don’t go for a long hike past 6 p.m.”
With the FDP’s decline, a rerun of Merkel’s first-term alliance with the Social Democrats is becoming more likely. While Merkel hasn’t officially declared her candidacy, she is Germany’s most popular politician and 53 percent of voting-age Germans favor a grand coalition, according to an Infratest dimap poll for ARD television published March 1.
Forty-four percent favored a government of Social Democrats and Greens, the alliance that ran Germany between 1998 and 2005 under SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Polls don’t show a majority for such an alliance. The Feb. 27-28 poll of 1,004 people had a margin of error of as many as 3.1 percentage points.
Saarland, a former coal-and-steel state of 2.6 million people, is holding early elections after Annegret Kramp- Karrenbauer, the CDU state premier, dumped the FDP in January out of a government that also comprised the Greens. The state still has a steel industry, while coal is being phased out.
The region was Germany’s third most-indebted region on a per capita basis at the end of 2010 after the city-states of Bremen and Berlin, according to the Federal Statistics Office. The jobless rate was 6.8 percent in February, compared with 6.2 percent for all of western Germany.
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