Sunday's state election in North Rhine-Westphalia looks increasingly to be a victory ripe for the opposition CDU's picking. An SPD defeat would be bad news for the government ahead of the general election in 2006.
Schröder's SPD has a fight on its hands
Germany's Social Democrats have their backs to the wall ahead of a key weekend election in a state they have held for nearly four decades, which could spell the beginning of the end for the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
Schröder made a passionate plea to voters on Friday to back his Social Democrats and their Green coalition partners in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state with 18 million people.
Opinion polls show the Social Democrats are set to lose control of the state in Sunday's vote, after 39 years in charge -- as disgruntled voters alarmed over a steady loss of jobs and erosion of social benefits head in droves to the opposition.
Defeat could spell bad omen for 2006
Could Schröder be walking away come 2006?
The state which forms the industrial heartland of Germany appears almost certain to elect the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), an ominous sign for Schröder as a general election looms in September 2006. Defeat in the Social Democrat stronghold of 13.3 million voters would complete a miserable series of state election results for the chancellor.
In 1999, the SPD governed in 11 of Germany's 16 regions but if it loses on Sunday it will be in charge of only five.
North Rhine-Westphalia is the only state ruled by a Social Democrat-Green coalition, mirroring the federal ruling coalition in Berlin.
Schröder pleads with NRW for support
On Friday, Schröder told party supporters in Dortmund that the state must stay loyal to its traditional politics. "Social democracy is the trademark of North Rhine-Westphalia and it must remain that way," the chancellor said, flanked by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero who had come to lend his support. The federal government "needs the support of North Rhine-Westphalia," Schröder said, praising the state for its "social cohesion".
Concerning the social security and labor market reforms that have improved competitiveness but swelled unemployment to 1.1 million in this region of coalmines and steelworks, Schröder said they were a bitter pill Germany must swallow. "We must complete the overhaul of our social state," he said. "If we do not solve these problems we have no chance of staying among the top nations in the world."
Unemployment has soared to around five million nationally and North Rhine-Westphalia has been particularly hard hit where in some areas close to one-quarter of the work force is jobless. Thirty years ago, coal and steel accounted for 830,000 jobs in the state, but now the figure is just 130,000 and as a result, unemployment in the most blighted areas is twice as high as the state average of 12 percent.
Opposition lead looks conclusive, says poll
The CDU's Jürgen Rüttgers and his wife Angelika on the campaign trail
The conservative CDU is credited with 44 percent of the vote in North Rhine-Westphalia, ahead of the Social Democrats with 25 percent, the Greens with nine percent and the liberal Free Democrats' seven percent, according to a poll released by ZDF public television.
However the current state premier, Peer Steinbrueck, enjoys a high approval rating -- 52 percent would back him if he were standing for direct election, against 30 percent for his conservative rival Jürgen Rüttgers, according to a poll published by ARD public television.
SPD pins hopes on "undecided" voters
Steinbrueck, who admits on his campaign poster that he "cannot promise jobs", conceded on Friday that "nationally, the overall trend is strongly against the SPD", but pointed to the large number of undecided voters as proof that the race was far from over.
However, even if it takes North-Rhine Westphalia, the CDU will still lack the two-thirds majority in the federal upper chamber, or Bundesrat, that would enable it to block the government's decisions.