Europe

German state vote a test for Merkel's party, resurgent rival

  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, turns her head as she listens to the opening address during an EU summit meeting at the Orazi and Curiazi Hall in the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome on Saturday, March 25, 2017. European Union leaders were gathering in Rome to mark the 60th anniversary of their founding treaty and chart a way ahead following the decision of Britain to leave the 28-nation bloc. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, turns her head as she listens to the opening address during an EU summit meeting at the Orazi and Curiazi Hall in the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome on Saturday, March 25, 2017. European Union leaders were gathering in Rome to mark the 60th anniversary of their founding treaty and chart a way ahead following the decision of Britain to leave the 28-nation bloc. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)  (The Associated Press)

  • German Social Democrat  chancellor candidate Martin Schulz shoulders a camera for a camera man of a television team at the St. Johanner Market in Saarbruecken, Germany, Friday, March 24, 2017. Schulz is visiting the German state of Saarland as part of the campaign for regional elections there on March 26 . (Oliver Dietze/dpa via AP)

    German Social Democrat chancellor candidate Martin Schulz shoulders a camera for a camera man of a television team at the St. Johanner Market in Saarbruecken, Germany, Friday, March 24, 2017. Schulz is visiting the German state of Saarland as part of the campaign for regional elections there on March 26 . (Oliver Dietze/dpa via AP)  (The Associated Press)

A state election Sunday in western Germany offers Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives a tough test against their resurgent center-left rivals six months before Merkel seeks a fourth term in a national vote.

The election for the state legislature in Saarland, a region of just under 1 million people on the French border that Merkel's Christian Democrats have led since 1999, is the first of three regional votes before Germany's Sept. 24 national vote.

It's being watched closely as the first electoral test since the center-left Social Democrats nominated Martin Schulz as Merkel's challenger in January.

Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament but a newcomer to national politics, has boosted his party's long-moribund poll ratings and injected it with new self-confidence. He's offering a classic though often vague center-left pitch of tackling economic inequality at home.

That boost means that a fourth Merkel term no longer looks inevitable — and it also has tightened the race in Saarland.

Conservative governor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer until recently looked certain to win a new five-year term. But Social Democrat rival Anke Rehlinger now hopes to finish first, and polls suggest she could win a majority for an alliance with the opposition Left Party.

The two women currently govern together in a "grand coalition" of the biggest parties, an alliance similar to Merkel's at the national level.

Kramp-Karrenbauer is one of only five conservative governors in Germany's 16 states. Losing her would be a worrying signal for the national campaign and for two bigger state elections in May — in Schleswig-Holstein and Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, both led by the Social Democrats.

Merkel has barely mentioned Schulz so far, but warned at a rally in Saarland on Thursday against a left-wing coalition there.

"We don't want the clocks to go back on Sunday; we want the clocks to be put forward," she said.