On the eve of elections in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, focus has shifted to how the vote is a litmus test for the policies of Chancellor Angela Merkel's federal coalition government.
NRW voters will pass judgement on the Merkel government
Elections in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) have always been considered an important cog in federal politics in Germany. The state, with around 18 million inhabitants, is the country's most populous and swings among its 13.5 million voters have often preceded similar shifts at the national level.
Influential news weekly Die Zeit's website has called the NRW race "the mini national election."
Political scientist Gerd Langguth from the University of Bonn in NRW said this is the reason why the whole country will be keenly watching the upcoming vote.
"The elections in North Rhine-Westphalia are the most important,” he told Deutsche Welle. “Firstly, it's the first election since the national election last year, so it's more or less also a political test on federal policies. And also it's the only election this year."
Too close to call
Fighting it out is incumbent state premier Juergen Ruettgers of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Hannelore Kraft of the opposition Social Democrats (SPD).
Kraft has helped the SPD regain lost ground in NRW
For the last five years, Ruettgers has led a coalition government involving his CDU and junior partners the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) - a union that is mirrored at the federal level under Chancellor Angela Merkel - but the partnership has seen a steady decline in support during its time in office, leaving the result of the upcoming election on a knife's edge.
However there is much more at stake over these next few days than who rules NRW. If voters turn against CDU-FDP on Sunday then not only will the composition of the state parliament in Duesseldorf be altered, but also that of Germany's Upper House, the Bundesrat, where the federal CDU-FDP coalition currently enjoys a majority.
In Germany, the individual state governments vote directly on the decisions taken by the federal government, and this is done through the Bundesrat, where North Rhine-Westphalia enjoys the highest-possible number of votes. Holding a majority in the Bundesrat is essential to the federal government being able to pass legislation with little opposition.
NRW 'political test'
Ruettgers' government has steadily lost support
If the opposition Social Democrats win in NRW, causing the Merkel government to lose its majority in the Bundesrat, then the CDU will begin to encounter much more resistance when trying to pass legislation.
Germany's international partners have already accused Merkel of foot-dragging on the Greek debt crisis because of the NRW election and ultimately driving up the cost of the European Union aid deal for Athens. Merkel was afraid of angering CDU voters over Germany's contribution to the deal, which has remained deeply unpopular among voters, prompting NRW premier Ruettgers to comment this week that "Greece is the number-one issue in the campaign."
Speed-bumps on the horizon
Among the federal government policies at stake, should the SPD win in North Rhine-Westphalia, are those on nuclear power and on tax cuts.
The former federal CDU-SPD Grand Coalition government was planning to pull the plug on the country's nuclear plants. But when the CDU opted to form government with the FDP after federal elections last September this went out the window. If the Social Democrats win the NRW election then Merkel's government could have considerable difficulties passing legislation allowing for an extension of the lifespan of the country's nuclear plants.
The Merkel government's effectiveness is on the line
And tax cuts, a key element to Merkel's election campaign last year, could also face considerable hurdles should the CDU lose its Upper House majority.
Other key issues affecting Germany at the moment which have driven a wedge between CDU and SPD, such as the war in Afghanistan and the ongoing Greek debt crisis, could also be thrown up in the air should CDU-FDP lose North Rhine-Westphalia.
Gerd Langguth told Deutsche Welle that a loss for the CDU in the state election could also cause a reappraisal within the party of its own profile.
"And the debate will be, what is the political profile of the CDU at this moment in a lot of questions concerning Afghanistan, the environment, the social market system," he said. "And I will predict that if Mr Ruettgers loses the election then there will be a huge debate in her party, Merkel's party."
Although Merkel's room for maneuver is on the line, Nils Diederich of Berlin's Free University said her job is safe.
"Merkel is still too strong to throw in the towel," he said.
Author: Darren Mara
Editor: Rob Turner