On May 9, voters in North Rhine-Westphalia will go to the polls to elect a new parliament. So far, no party has a clear majority, but a small socialist party with roots in East Germany has opposition leaders worried.
Beuermann could become the first Left party leader in the state parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia
By mid-April, most schoolteachers are busy grading papers and looking forward to summer vacations - not Baerbel Beuermann.
The 54-year old special needs teacher just took a leave of absence to become the Left party's first candidate for the North Rhine-Westphalia state election, which takes place on Sunday.
"We want to change education here in North Rhine-Westphalia, we want to change the social items here, and we have to change the work situation ," says the candidate, who is best known for her trademark fiery red hair and controversial socialist agenda.
Eastern roots, western branches
The Left Party is one of Germany's newest parties, founded in 2007 by disgruntled western German trade unionists and members of the successor to the East German communist party. Already successful in eastern Germany, the party has been instrumental in establishing a socialist presence in the western part of Germany.
Beuermann credits the party's growth to voters' disenchantment with other, less hard-line socialist parties, as well as a growing divide between rich and poor.
"There is money, we are a rich country, more than 2,000 millionaires in Germany, and there are a lot of people who are hungry," Beuermann told Deutsche Welle.
Working class hero
The granddaughter of a coal miner, Beuermann grew up in the small town of Herne near Bochum, where she lived with her extended family. Money was tight, and the family grew vegetables and slaughtered their own pigs for food.
"My father was active in the trade unions, and it sunk in for me that trade unions are good for the people," Beuermann said.
The SPD's Kraft, has refused to commit to a coalition
But the Left party's links to the communism and the former state of East Germany has alienated some voters. Across party lines, there is concern that the Left party could form a coalition with the more mainstream Social Democratic Party, as is already the case in Berlin.
So far, the candidate for the Social Democrats in North Rhine-Westphalia, Hannelore Kraft, has refused to commit to such a coalition. However, poll data shows it is unlikely that the party could form a majority simply by partnering with their traditional allies, the Greens.
North Rhine-Westphalia is currently governed by a coalition of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) - the same combination as the national government in Berlin.
The state also has one-eighth of Germany's entire population, meaning the regional election is something of a progress report for Merkel's Christian Democrats, who took office in Berlin six months ago.
"It is the first test if the start of this government has been successful, or if people feel there are deficits," political scientist Hans J. Kleinsteuber told Deutsche Welle.
Polls show voters are dissatisfied with the constant bickering within the center-right coalition government on a range of issues from fiscal policy, health reforms and nuclear power.
The outcome of the election could affect the CDU majority at a federal level
North Rhine-Westphalia's 13.5 million voters could tip the balance of power on a federal level, if the election forces the CDU out of office.
"The election outcome could affect the Christian Democrats' majority in the Bundesrat, the German upper house of parliament," said Prof. Juergen Falter, a voting behavior expert at the University of Mainz.
Merkel herself has spoken out on the issue.
"The largest state must be governed soundly, as it can't be the location for 'experiments' with uncertain conclusions," Merkel told a CDU party convention in the western city of Muenster.
In order to win a seat in the state parliament, the Left party needs five percent of the vote. Current poll data show about seven percent, meaning Baerbel Beueremann is poised to make history as the first Left party leader in the NRW state parliament.
Author: Sarah Harman
Editor: Martin Kuebler