German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives are expecting a victory Sunday in elections in the state of Hesse.
Merkel is hoping a win in Hesse will bode well for general elections
On Sunday, Jan. 18, voters in Hesse will go to the polls for the second time in 12 months to elect a new parliament.
Opinion polls give Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) a comfortable lead over the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), junior partner in an uneasy coalition with the chancellor's party in Berlin.
The election comes as the country finds itself mired in recession, with unemployment rising, production declining and the government forced to pump tens of billions of euros into shoring up the economy.
Replacing Hesse's caretaker government
It also kicks off what Germans are calling a super election year, with voting for five of the country's 16 regional parliaments as well as elections for a new president in May and a general election on Sept. 27.
Koch has toned down his rhetoric this time around
Hesse, one of Germany's most prosperous states where the banking center of Frankfurt is located, has been administered by a caretaker government under CDU Prime Minister Roland Koch since inconclusive elections in January 2008.
In that vote, the SPD, led by Andrea Ypsilanti, narrowly failed to unseat Koch, whose hard-hitting campaign targeting young criminals from ethnic minorities alienated many voters.
Ypsilanti, 51, then tried to topple the premier by forming a parliamentary alliance with the Greens, backed by tacit support from the radical Left Party. In so doing, she broke a campaign promise not to work with the Left, an alliance of former East German communists and disgruntled Social Democrats from the West.
Eroding support for SPD
This proved too much for four SPD rebels, who withdrew their support a day before a crucial vote in parliament on Nov. 4, leaving their party leader without a majority. Ypsilanti was forced to make an embarrassing climbdown and agree to early elections.
Since then, voter support for the SPD has steadily eroded. Latest opinion polls show its ratings down to between 24 and 25 percent from 36.7 percent in the 2009 election.
Ypsilanti came very close ... but lost her support
The CDU, on the other hand, has seen its popularity grow to 41-42 percent from 36.8 percent last January. With its preferred partner the Free Democrats tipped to win 13 percent, the two would have a comfortable majority in the 110-seat legislature in Wiesbaden.
Surveys show the Greens also running at 13 percent, with the Left hovering around the 5 percent needed to gain parliamentary representation, but not enough to from a workable majority with the SPD.
Koch's challenger is Thorsten Schaefer-Guembel, 39, an SPD back-bencher who was plucked from obscurity by Ypsilanti to fight the election while she remained behind the scenes as party leader.
"He's just the figure on the car radiator grille while Ypsilanti remains firmly in the driving seat," quipped Koch, who has been premier for nearly a decade.
Difference in platforms
Schaefer-Guembel has sought to distance himself from his mentor and has put on a brave face when confronted with jokes about his double-barrelled name and thick spectacles.
Both the CDU and the SPD have pledged to invest more in education and infrastructure projects, but differ on energy policy and an expansion of Frankfurt airport, one of Europe's busiest, a move which the SPD opposes.
Schaefer-Guembel: competitor or puppet?
Koch, 50, has toned down his fiery rhetoric, concentrating instead on selling himself as a crisis manager at a time of growing economic uncertainty, a move that could make the CDU palatable to the Greens if a broader-based coalition is necessary.
A victory for the CDU would give it a boost in confidence in the run-up to the general election after the setback it suffered in a state election in Bavaria last September when its Christian Social Union sister party lost its absolute majority.
Test for general election?
While the Hesse vote might prove a reliable gauge of the mood of the electorate, leading politicians caution against viewing it as a test for the general election in eight months time.
"Voters often leave it until the last moment before deciding which party to support," said Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.