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Hesse state votes in parallel German poll

Germany's central state of Hesse, with its financial hub Frankfurt, readied for a parallel regional election on Sunday. Social Democrats and Greens are challenging Hesse's incumbent CDU-FDP government.

Almost overshadowed by Germany's federal election campaign, the central German state of Hesse headed for a parallel regional election on Sunday, with surveys pointing to a narrow contest.

Defending mainly conservative rule in Hesse is the regional branch of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic party (CDU) with its lead candidate and state premier Volker Bouffier (pictured above).

The CDU has governed Hesse with the pro-business liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) since 2009, after the collapse of a short-lived center-left coalition.

Bouffier's CDU is on about 40 percent, according to pre-poll surveys. Its coalition partner, the FDP, which scored 16.2 percent in Hesse's last election in 2009, has sunk to between five and six percent.

Challenging Bouffier is Social Democrat Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel and his center-left opposition SPD.

Surveys show the SPD on about 30 percent - a gain of six percent from the last election - with its likely partner the Greens on 13 percent, unchanged from vote returns in 2009.

Further to the left, the socialist Left party, which entered the Wiesbaden assembly with 5.4 percent in 2009, lies below the threshold for parliamentary entry.

Mixed CDU messages on euroskeptics

On Thursday, Bouffier – like Chancellor Merkel's CDU at federal level - ruled out any inclusion of the new euroskeptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, telling public ZDF television: "There will be no coalition with the AfD," adding, "On my word of honor."

That was a revision of his stance of Wednesday when Bouffier said that he could not fundamentally exclude anything.

The SPD's Schäfer-Gümbel said Bouffier had been caught toying with the idea of involving the AfD as a tactical option.

A leading Left party member Janine Wissler said Bouffier was "playing with fire," because numerous far-right populists had "found a new home" in the AfD.

Recent surveys have put the AfD at three percent and under the five-percent threshold for entry into the state assembly in Wiesbaden.

Bouffier took over within the CDU in 2010 from former Hesse state premier, Roland Koch, who switched to management in the construction industry.

Hesse's key election issues include its debt-burdened finances; expansion plans for Frankfurt Airport versus noise affecting neighbors; a push for renewable energy sources for its industries after a nuclear plant closure; and day-long care at schools.

ipj/rc (dpa, Reuters)