Election in German state is crucial test for Chancellor Merkel
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A week after voters in Greece and France showed their dissatisfaction in national elections with the eurozone’s pro-austerity measures, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's party also faces a crucial test in the country’s most populous state on Sunday.
Around 13.2 million voters in North Rhine-Westphalia, NRW - more than a fifth of Germany's electorate – will choose a new regional parliament in the bellweather western state which hosts a major industrial base.
Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, CDU, is fighting to capture the powerhouse state from a coalition made up of the centre-left Social Democratic Party, SPD, and ecologist Greens.
Despite surveys consistently revealing strong national support among German voters for Merkel's austerity drive in Europe and for her party, her party is trailing the SPD by six or seven points in opinion polls taken in NRW.
The polls suggest that SPD's popular lead candidate, state premier Hannelore Kraft, could again be headed into a coalition with the Greens and, unlike last time, enjoy a majority.
The region historically plays a big role in federal politics. In 2005, a lost vote in the region prompted then Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to call a snap federal election which saw Merkel wrest power from him.
The poll was triggered after her minority state government unexpectedly fell when the regional parliament failed to pass a draft budget after just 22 months in power.
Merkel has tried to play down the importance of the NRW vote saying it “is an important state parliament election for North Rhine-Westphalia, no more, no less".
But, under a headline asking "How much longer?", Die Zeit newspaper commented that the NRW vote could be a "fateful day" for Merkel.
"Angela Merkel is at the peak of her power … and knows, now it becomes quite tough," it said.
And the Bild newspaper said on Sunday: "The minute the polling stations close... the election campaign for the 2013 legislative polls will begin."
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