BERLIN • Germans in the small western state of Saarland voted yesterday in a regional election that could deliver an upset to Chancellor Angela Merkel and hurt her prospects of winning a fourth term in September's national election.
The election carries significance as it is the first of three regional ballots ahead of the Sept 24 federal vote and offers an opportunity for the parties to build - or lose - momentum in their quest to prevail at the national level.
The vote is the first electoral test for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) under new leader Martin Schulz, who has re-energised the centre-left party with a promise to tackle inequality, a pledge that is resonating with many voters tired of Dr Merkel.
An unusually impassioned Dr Merkel told a rally last Thursday that "this time every vote really counts. Take my words seriously", in a last-gasp effort to drum up support for her conservative Christian Democrats (CDU).
Voting in Saarland ran until 6pm local time yesterday, after which exit polls were to be released.
Like federal Germany, Saarland is governed by a "grand coalition" of Chancellor Merkel's conservatives and the SPD.
But polls have suggested that a left-leaning "red-red-green" alliance of the SPD, the far-left Linke party and the environmentalist Greens - or even a "red-red" coalition if the Greens fail to win enough votes - could emerge after the vote.
A three-way leftist alliance in Saarland would be the third at state level after Berlin and the eastern region of Thuringia, and could give impetus to a similar format at the national level.
A survey by pollster Emnid published in Bild am Sonntag newspaper yesterday showed that national support for the SPD had risen slightly from a week ago and that the centre-left party was tied with Dr Merkel's conservative bloc on 33 per cent.
With the Linke and Greens both on 8 per cent nationally, the poll suggested that the three left-leaning parties could form a federal coalition government after September's general election.
Under Dr Merkel, Germany has enjoyed economic growth and high employment but the gap between rich and poor has grown.
Mr Schulz is trying to win over dissatisfied working-class voters with a message of social justice.
The SPD, Linke and Greens have discussed refraining from attacking each other during the national campaign.
Mr Schulz is wary of talking about coalition formations before the state and federal elections, as he is keen to maximise SPD support.
"The same applies in Saarland as at the federal level: We want to be the strongest party," he has told Bild am Sonntag.
"Whoever then wants to govern with us, is very welcome to come to us."
Mr Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament, has boosted support for the Social Democrats by 10 per cent with promises to help the socially disadvantaged and end Dr Merkel's almost 12-year reign in the September election.
The "Schulz mania" has seen younger voters flock to the more than 150-year-old workers' party.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE