Voters go the polls in North Rhine- Westphalia today as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party tries to capitalize on her personal popularity to regain Germany’s most populous state.
With almost a quarter of Germany’s 82 million people, North Rhine-Westphalia is Merkel’s biggest electoral test this year before national elections in the fall of 2013. It’s also the first state her CDU lost in 2010 as the debt crisis erupted and voters rebelled against bailing out Greece.
While Merkel headlined nine campaign rallies in 27 days, polls suggest her party will struggle to unseat the Social Democrats and Greens from the state government in Dusseldorf. That may embolden domestic opposition to her austerity policy just as its opponents build momentum across Europe.
“There’s clearly a more fractious political landscape, also in Germany, which is making it harder for Chancellor Merkel and her coalition,” Thomas Harjes, senior European economist at Barclays Plc, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Maryam Nemazee on May 11.
In North Rhine-Westphalia, the former coal-and-industry powerhouse on the Dutch and Belgian borders, polls suggested Merkel’s CDU was closing the Social Democratic lead in the final days of the campaign. The CDU had 33 percent to 38 percent for the Social Democrats, an Info poll for Handelsblatt newspaper showed May 11. That compared with a 30-37 percent gap two days previously.
Even so, the Greens had 11 percent in the latest poll, giving the Social Democrat-Greens coalition led by SPD Prime Minister Hannelore Kraft a combined 49 percent, enough to retain power. The Pirate Party had 8 percent and Merkel’s Free Democrat coalition partner 5 percent, the threshold to win parliamentary seats, according to the Info poll of 1,007 voters conducted May 3-5. No margin of error was provided.
Merkel began her campaign in April by attacking the state government for running up debt, contrasting that with her push to curb deficits in Germany and across Europe. Yet she resisted turning the vote into a referendum on her austerity drive, which polls indicate a majority of Germans support.
“Sunday’s election is an important state election for North Rhine-Westphalia, no more and no less,” she told Ruhr Nachrichten newspaper in comments published May 10.
Merkel is Germany’s most popular politician with a 61 percent approval rating, according to an Infratest Dimap poll for ARD television published May 3. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, Merkel’s point man on the debt crisis, is second-most popular at 60 percent, according to the survey of 1,504 people.
That didn’t stop the opposition exercising its clout last week when Social Democrat and Green-run states used their majority in the upper house to block her plans to cut income tax and solar-power subsidies. Her Christian Democrats suffered their worst showing in more than 50 years in elections in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein on May 6 that put the Social Democrats within reach of forming a coalition.
A renewed defeat for Merkel would further hearten the Social Democrats as they align with French President-elect Francois Hollande in an anti-austerity front pressing for measures to spur economic growth across Europe to counter the crisis. Merkel needs SPD support to pass Europe’s debt-reducing fiscal pact in parliament.
Hollande is due in Berlin for the first meeting with Merkel hours after his inauguration on May 15. Two days later, the German chancellor who has dominated Europe’s response to the debt crisis heads to the U.S. for talks on the global economy with other Group of Eight leaders, including Hollande.
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