Angela Merkel hopes for boost in crucial German state election on Sunday

Vote in North Rhine-Westphalia is central to chancellor’s hopes for fourth term

 Martin Schulz, leader of the German Social Democrats (SPD), greets supporters during his SPD campaign prior state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia. Photograph: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Martin Schulz, leader of the German Social Democrats (SPD), greets supporters during his SPD campaign prior state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia. Photograph: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

 

German chancellor Angela Merkel hopes her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) can pull off a state election hat-trick on Sunday, winning the crucial state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) to boost her own hopes of a fourth term in September.

The weekend state poll of 13 million voters, viewed as Germany’s federal election dry run, has gone down to the wire with the CDU just one point behind the ruling Social Democrats (SPD).

After two recent state election losses, a loss of power in its traditional industrial heartland after seven years would undermine SPD leader Martin Schulz’s hopes of ousting Dr Merkel in the autumn.

Even before he reveals his election programme next month, a series of national polls suggest the euphoric “Schulz Effekt” that followed his nomination in January has begun to fizzle out.

An 10-point lead has opened up between SPD and CDU, according to a poll on Thursday, putting wind in the German leader’s sails in the NRW campaign.

“We have considerable problems here in infrastructure, that’s undisputed, in education and security, all areas where the CDU can say, credibly, that they can do it better,” said Dr Merkel in a Düsseldorf discussion organised by the Rheinische Post daily.

Unusually witty

In an unusually witty campaign appearance the German leader, in power since 2005, insisted she wasn’t overly vain and had never Googled herself. “Though I often have to check my mobile phone to see what my own number is,” she added quickly.

While she amused her audience in Düsseldorf, SPD leader Martin Schulz hoped a rally in his home town of Würseln would invigorate his NRW state allies and halt his own popularity slide.

He insists the SPD is the guarantor of social justice in German politics but, when a gust of wind blew down a banner reading “time for more fairness”, Mr Schulz laughed that “he could imagine the headlines”.

A photo finish result for the two larger parties in NRW could see a grand coalition in the Düsseldorf parliament, mirroring Dr Merkel’s own administration in Berlin.

Green coalition

Such an outcome in Germany’s most populous state hinges on the performance of smaller parties.

A big win is on the cards for the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), a further lap on its comeback after crashing out of the Bundestag in 2013. Endangering SPD re-election hopes is the struggle of their Green coalition to return to parliament, neck-and-neck in polls on six per cent with the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

Dr Merkel and her CDU allies in Berlin have pulled out all the stops in recent days to boost their NRW result. On Thursday CDU finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble revealed how an ongoing economic boom will boost the tax take by an extra €54 billion in the next four years, promising tax cuts and extra spending for the regions.

In a conciliatory nod to French president-elect Emmanuel Macron, set to visit Berlin on Monday, Dr Schäuble conceded in Der Spiegel that Germany’s controversial trade surplus is “too high”.