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Social Democrats vie for Merkel territory in regional elections


Latest update : 2009-08-30

Polls opened Sunday for regional elections in two eastern states of Germany, which the Social Democrats are trying to wrest from the ruling CDU. The polls considered an important bellweather for the September 27 general election.

AFP - Germany's Social Democrats hope to wrest two states from Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives in polls Sunday and slow her formidable momentum toward a second term in next month's general election.
The Social Democrats, junior partners in Merkel's fractious left-right government, are gunning for ruling majorities in two of three state elections and dreaming of turning the tide ahead of the September 27 national poll.
Some 6.2 million voters are called to cast ballots in the ex-communist eastern states of Saxony and Thuringia and Saarland on the French border.
The polls come at the end of a tough week for Merkel, amid turmoil over the future of automaker Opel, sniping between her conservatives and their favoured coalition partners, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), and a flap over a dinner she held for Germany's top banker.
Merkel's Christian Union (CDU/CSU) is leading the Social Democrats (SPD) at the national level by an around 15-point margin.
But polls show the conservatives may lose power in Thuringia and Saarland while holding onto the state house in Saxony.
The Social Democrats say they are prepared to take over by entering into alliances with the far-left Die Linke, a relatively new political party comprised of disaffected SPD members and former East German communists.
"Red-red" coalitions are common in the east of the reunited country but have been taboo in the west, where many see Die Linke as too radical and tainted by its historical links with the party that built the Berlin Wall.
Saarland would be the first western state to see such a governing alliance.
Merkel, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain, is warning against the rise of Die Linke as the country marks 20 years since the Wall's collapse.
She dismissed SPD hopes that Sunday's polls could have an impact on the national election.
"These polls are not a test for the general election," she said in an interview with Saturday's Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper.
She said her conservatives were bound to lose some support compared to the last elections in 2005 when public anger over labour market reforms rolled out by then chancellor Gerhard Schroeder cost the SPD dearly.
"I am nevertheless optimistic about the outcome of the elections," Merkel said. "We plan to emerge as the strongest party in each of them and then we will see from there."
Her SPD challenger at the national level, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, insisted in an interview with the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that his bid to overtake Merkel would gain momentum Sunday.
"It is in full swing!" he said, before taking a dig at the chancellor's above-the-fray campaigning style.
"I don't know whether Frau Merkel still plans to enter this election campaign. Until now at least she has failed to engage in the debate."
A Bild am Sonntag poll released Sunday indicated that Merkel had little to worry in her re-election bid.
An astounding 87 percent of Germans said they expected Merkel to win versus just nine percent counting on a victory for Steinmeier, according to the survey of 501 people conducted by the Emnid independent opinion research institute.
Exit polls from the three states are expected at 1600 GMT.

Date created : 2009-08-30