Merkel faces more ballot woe in German state vote

A bad European week for Chancellor Angela Merkel looks likely to end with more electoral woes — this time, the likely re-election of a center-left government in Germany's most populous state, which Merkel has sought to portray as irresponsibly addicted to debt.

But despite the prospect of an embarrassing loss for her conservatives, Merkel still looks unlikely to join French ally Nicolas Sarkozy any time soon in the parade of European leaders booted out by voters weary of Berlin-backed austerity. Merkel's stance is widely shared by German voters nationally.

Sunday's state election in North Rhine-Westphalia, a western region of some 18 million people, was called in March after its minority government, made up of Germany's main national opposition parties, narrowly failed to get a budget passed.

Opposition leaders declared that it would send an important signal ahead of national elections due in late 2013. Merkel said it offered an opportunity for the region to elect a government that wouldn't take on "ever more debt."

That line of attack looks unlikely to bear fruit: polls suggest the state government of Social Democrats and Greens led by popular governor Hannelore Kraft has a good chance of emerging strengthened, with a majority in the state legislature.

But Sunday's election won't change the balance of power nationally whatever the outcome. Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University, said Merkel should be able to continue with "business as usual."

Merkel's national center-right coalition has become notorious for infighting over issues ranging from tax cuts to planned benefits for stay-at-home parents since it took power in late 2009. It has performed badly in several state elections over the past year.

The squabbling, and the Free Democrats' weakness in polls, has long fed periodic speculation that the government might fall apart before national elections are due in September next year. But it has held on — and Neugebauer said he expects it to serve the full term.

When the national election comes, Merkel's chances of holding power look decent, though perhaps with a new coalition partner.

North Rhine-Westphalia is a traditional center-left stronghold, though Merkel's Christian Democrats and their partners in the current national government, the pro-market Free Democrats, ran it for five years until 2010.

The Christian Democratic candidate, federal Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen, hasn't looked seriously likely to win it back during an underwhelming and at times gaffe-prone campaign. And the struggling Free Democrats' main aim is to win the 5 percent of votes needed to retain their seats.

This week, Roettgen irritated fellow conservatives by declaring that Sunday's election would decide "whether Angela Merkel's course in Europe is strengthened or whether it is weakened by the re-election of a pro-debt government in Germany."

Merkel shot back in a regional newspaper interview that "the election on Sunday is an important state election for North Rhine-Westphalia — no more and no less." And Roettgen downplayed his remarks, insisting he meant only to target the current state government.

Merkel's center-left predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, engineered early national elections which led to his defeat after his party lost its four-decade grip on North Rhine-Westphalia in 2005.

Merkel made no such dramatic move after her coalition's defeat there two years ago, which cost her government its majority in Parliament's upper house.

Current national polls consistently show Merkel's conservatives as the biggest party, though they forecast a parliamentary majority neither for her center-right coalition nor for the Social Democrats and Greens, who ran Germany from 1998 to 2005.

The upstart Pirate Party, which has surged in recent months with a platform of near-total transparency and Internet freedom but lacks policies on many issues — including the debt crisis — so far seems to have hurt the center-left most.

Merkel's personal popularity remains high nearly seven years into a chancellorship in which she has repeatedly displayed a knack for riding out crises. And whether or not campaigning against higher debt helps this weekend, a poll published this week suggested Germans are still broadly on her side.

The survey of 1,003 people by Forsa for Stern magazine, conducted May 3-4, found that 59 percent rejected the idea of stimulating growth by running up new debt.

Sixty-one percent believed Merkel should stick to her tough stance — which she has done since French and Greek voters punished pro-austerity parties last weekend. But officials are hopeful of reconciling Berlin's desire for budget discipline with incoming French President Francois Hollande's push for growth.