Voters in two German states will be choosing new government leaders on Sunday. Their decision is also a referendum on Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
Hunting for votes: A campaign poster in Lower Saxony showing Premier Sigmar Gabriel (SPD)
German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, his narrow election victory barely four months old, will cast a nervous eye as poll results come in at two state elections on 6 p.m. on Sunday.
Voters in Schröder's home state of Lower Saxony and in the central state of Hesse will be heading to the polls on February 2 to select their new leaders. It may be a state vote, but, as Schröder knows, this vote will be as much about his policies as it will be about such pressing local issues.
"With two election victories, we want to strengthen our position in the debate with the Social Democrats over the right course for Germany," the opposition party CDU proclaimed before the elections.
The way to more power
Given Germany's bicameral legislative structure, the Christian Democratic Union could indeed strengthen its position in the debate. In the current division of power, Schröder's coalition of Social Democrats and Greens controls the parliament, the Bundestag. But the Christian Democrats and the smaller Free Democrats have the majority in the country's second legislative body, the Bundesrat. This house consists of representatives from Germany's 16 states and has a say on many national issues, including taxes.
An opposition victory on Sunday would maintain the votes that the Christian Democrats and Free Democrats hold in Hesse and add six more votes from Lower Saxony. This would subsequently force Schröder to agree on more compromises on those national issues that undergo approval in the Bundesrat, a development which could lead to greater troubles within the governing coalition and his own party as a result.
In the days leading up to the vote, the chancellor has little reason to believe that the Christian Democrats will fail to achieve their goal. In Lower Saxony, where Schröder won a majority in 1998 on his way to becoming chancellor, latest polls predict the downfall of the current Social Democratic government - and that the Christian Democrats may well rise to power with a possible majority of their own.
The same picture has emerged in Hesse, a state with a strong Social Democratic tradition. Latest polls show the state's Christian Democratic premier, Roland Koch, would sweep up an absolute majority of 51 percent and accomplish something that no Christian Democrat premier had ever accomplished in Hesse before: win a re-election.
Social Democrats play down polls
Nonetheless, the German chancellor and Lower Saxony's premier, Sigmar Gabriel, have been trying to ignore the numbers in the waning days of the campaign. According to Gabriel, "nothing is decided.".
Voters' ire could be directed at Schröder for several reasons. Despite Schröder's pledge to the contrary, the government has had to raise taxes, unemployment has climbed past the 4 million level, and the country could face possible European Union fines for allowing its deficit to surge beyond barriers set up by the stability pact governing the euro.
But Schröder, like Gabriel, is still optimistic for Sunday's vote. "We are experts at winning down the home stretch," he said.
The four main candidates in Sunday's vote
Premier Sigmar Gabriel: The 43-year-old Social Democrat, came to power in 1999 after former premier Gerhard Glogowski was forced to resign for taking favors. A defeat on Sunday could dampen his ambition on the national stage.
Challenger Christian Wulff: The coming state elections may prove more successful for this 43-year-old Christian Democrat, who was trounced by Gerhard Schröder in two state elections in the 1990s. Wulff aims to make deep cuts in the state government if elected.
Premier Roland Koch: Apart from a scandal in state funding, the Christian Democrat, 44, has enjoyed steady success in politics since he became a member of the state legislature at the age of 29. A victory on Sunday could further his ambition to challenge party chairwoman Angela Merkel as the party's chancellor candidate in 2006.
Challenger Gerhard Bökel: The Social Democrat, 56, is a former state interior minister who now leads the state party and its parliamentary group. His goal in Sunday's vote is to create a coalition with the Greens, like the one in Berlin.