This is a big year for state elections in Germany, and the voting kicks off this weekend in Hamburg. Chancellor Merkel's coalition could take a beating, as voters in seven states head to the polls in 2011.
Merkel's coalition could take it on the chin in 2011
Germans refer to a year with several state elections as a "super election year." That's exactly what 2011 is shaping up to be, with seven of the 16 states going to the polls.
The state elections have a significant influence on national politics in Germany because the members of the upper house, the Bundesrat, are leading members of the state governments. This means that changes in government at state level automatically change the make-up of the Bundesrat.
The Bundesrat represents Germany's 16 federal states
Chancellor Angela's Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), and their coalition partners, the business friendly liberal Free Democrats (FDP), currently have 34 of 69 votes in the Bundesrat. That's one short of a majority and it could get worse.
The Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens could easily end up with a substantial majority in the Bundesrat, political scientist Peter Lösche told Deutsche Welle.
"That would mean that the political climate is really changing in Germany," he said.
"Governing for Chancellor Merkel would become much more complicated. And yet, it's not such an unusual situation in Germany," he added.
"In Germany, we have a kind of split government. By that I mean, that in the parliament or Bundestag, you have a majority of two parties that form the governing coalition. But in the upper house there can be a different majority. So if Chancellor Merkel wants to push through new legislation, she has to do a lot of negotiating, otherwise the opposition will block the bill in the upper house."
First up is Hamburg
There are 27 seats in the Bundesrat at stake in 2011 and in the worst-case scenario the CDU-FDP coalition could lose 16 of them. Opinion polls suggest that voters will use the state elections to punish the governing parties for a wide range of grievances, including broken promises to lower taxes.
Von Beust's resignation was a blow to Merkel's CDU
The first election is on February 20 in the northern port city-state of Hamburg, where three Bundesrat seats are up for grabs. The resignation last year of Mayor Ole von Beust of the CDU led to the collapse of their coalition with the Green Party.
The prognosis? Opinion polls indicate that the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) will win the election and be able to form a coalition government with the Greens.
Next up are dual elections on March 27 in Rhineland-Palatinate and neighboring Baden-Württemberg. The premier of Rhineland-Palatinate, the SPD's Kurt Beck, won with an absolute majority in the last elections. This time around he looks set to lose his majority. He may choose to team up with the Greens, but they could also be tempted by an offer to form a coalition with the CDU.
The Stuttgart 21 effect
Things are less cut-and-dried in Baden-Württemberg, where the divisive multi-billion-euro Stuttgart 21 railway station expansion has badly hurt the CDU, currently in power with the FDP. Opinion polls give the Green Party the support of 26 percent of voters in the state, almost double what it has anywhere else.
The Stuttgart 21 protests have hurt the CDU
The Greens have gotten major mileage by supporting protesters who say the railway construction project is environmentally damaging - while playing down the opportunity for Stuttgart to become a major junction in Europe's expanding rail network. The police have also been accused of using excessive force against protesters, which further hurt the CDU-FDP coalition's support.
A loss in Baden-Württemberg would be particularly damaging for the coalition at the federal level.
In 2005, a similar swing in voter sentiment saw the Social Democrats go down to defeat in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia. This prompted then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to ask the president to dissolve his government and call a snap election one year before it was due.
Author: Matthias von Hellfeld / hf
Editor: Andreas Illmer