Elections opened Sunday in three German states that will put Chancellor Angela Merkel's left-right government to the test for the first time since she ousted Gerhard Schröder in November last year.
A father, accompanied by his daughter and her bunny rabbit, votes in the state of Hesse
More than 17 million Germans in Baden-Württemberg in the
southwest, Rhineland-Palatinate in the west and Saxony-Anhalt in the east -- one-fifth of the nation's voters -- are called to the polls in a rare "Super Sunday" of elections.
Chancellor Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats and their coalition partners, the Social Democrats, have largely refrained from all-out attacks during the election campaigns to avoid jeopardizing their unlikely alliance at the national level.
Pollsters expect few surprises but note that strong wins or
heavy losses for either of the main parties could shift the balance of power in Berlin. The outcome is expected to serve as a barometer of the popularity of Merkel's unusual left-right coalition of her Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats (SPD), the product of last autumn's inconclusive general election.
Merkel is currently riding a wave of popularity
Merkel has surprised even her supporters in becoming Germany's most popular politician in the four months since she took power, thanks to a savvy approach of frank talk on the world stage and cautious reticence at home.
Although they hold a majority of ministries in Merkel's cabinet, the Social Democrats have been struggling to sharpen their profile since former chancellor Gerhard Schröder left politics.
Some pollsters predict a "Merkel effect" to produce gains for the conservatives Sunday, but her allies acknowledge that a rout for the Social Democrats could undermine the chancellor's already unwieldy government.
"The SPD should not lose too many votes," a close advisor to Merkel recently told the conservative daily Die Welt. "It is difficult as it is with the Social Democrats as partners."
Pressure on SPD
The SDP are in vulnerable shape
Any dip in support could turn up the pressure on the Social Democrats' chief Matthias Platzeck to overhaul his strategy or perhaps give up one of the three posts he juggles: party leader on the national and state level and Brandenburg state premier.
A poll disaster for the Social Democrats could also complicate thorny talks on reform of the ailing health care system, the introduction of a minimum wage and laws protecting employees against layoffs.
Polls show the Social Democrats are vulnerable. A survey released this week by independent institute Forsa showed the party at 28 percent -- far below the 34 percent they scored in the general election.
Conservative winning streak
The Christian Democrats, meanwhile, are flying high at 39 percent, up from 35 percent.
The conservatives are tipped to hold onto two of the three states -- Saxony-Anhalt and Baden-Württemberg -- while the Social Democrats expect to maintain power in Rhineland-Palatinate.
Saxony-Anhalt is one of Germany's poorest states and plagued by problems common throughout the ex-communist east: chronic unemployment of more than 20 percent, a looming public deficit and the flight of young people to wealthier regions.
But conservative state premier Wolfgang Böhmer, a 70-year-old gynecologist, is expected to dump his liberal partners, the Free Democrats, who are sinking in support in the state, and link up with Social Democrats in a mirror-image of Merkel's coalition.
"I assume that reasonable talks will produce a CDU-SPD majority in the end," the Social Democrat candidate in Saxony-Anhalt, Jens Bullerjahn, said this week.
In Baden-Württemberg, an economic powerhouse and home to automakers such as Porsche and DaimlerChrysler, the conservatives are counting on a continuation of their half-century lock on power despite crippling public sector strikes that have been running for seven weeks.
And in Rhineland-Palatinate, the country's only -- and remarkably harmonious -- marriage of Social Democrats and Free Democrats is expected to continue under the leadership of popular premier Kurt Beck.
Pollsters will be watching the Social Democrats' score closely in the state as Beck is the party's deputy national leader.