KIEL (Germany) • Voters in northern Germany headed to the polls yesterday in a regional election scrutinised over the centre-left's chances of unseating conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel in September.
The vote in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany's northern-most state, comes as a recent surge in nationwide polls for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), since new leader Martin Schulz was crowned in February, faded.
Supporters are increasingly fearful that the momentum imparted by their new leader will not carry them into the chancellery, which Dr Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have held against all challengers since 2005.
As at the national level, neither the SPD nor the CDU are expected to achieve an absolute majority in the regional Parliament in the state capital, the Baltic Sea port city of Kiel.
But if the CDU emerges leading a governing coalition, it will be a further blow to the SPD's confidence - one week ahead of yet a far bigger regional vote in their stronghold North Rhine-Westphalia, also Germany's most populous state.
"For Angela Merkel, an election victory for her party would be a turning point," commented conservative daily Die Welt. "For the first time since the beginning of her chancellorship in 2005, the CDU could reconquer one of the states they've lost."
The CDU lost a string of state elections over the past two years as voters punished Dr Merkel for her liberal refugee policy that has allowed more than a million asylum seekers into Germany since 2015.
But with the pace of new arrivals sharply slowing, surveys show the conservatives gaining ground. A recent survey of around 1,800 people for public broadcaster ZDF showed the CDU with 32 per cent support in Schleswig-Holstein and the SPD with 29 per cent.
One key unknown is whether the Germany-wide collapse in support for anti-euro, anti-Islam party Alternative for Germany (AfD) after a vicious internal falling-out between moderates and hardliners will be reflected in the state election results.
Polls show that the AfD is uncertain of passing the 5 per cent threshold to enter parliaments in both Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia - whereas, at the end of last year, it was the third-most popular party nationwide.
But, if the AfD or the far-left party Die Linke enters the legislatures, this could make for an upset in larger players' coalition calculus.
By 0900 GMT (5pm Singapore time), turnout appeared to be higher, with 21.55 per cent of the 2.3 million eligible voters having already cast their ballot, compared with 17.7 per cent at the same time during the last polls in 2012.
Polling stations were set to close at 6pm (midnight Singapore time), and results were expected shortly after.