Germans vote in regional election

Germans in the state of Hesse went to the polls on Sunday in a regional election that marks the start of an important political year for Chancellor Angela Merkel, dpa reported.

The vote comes less than a week after the chancellor unveiled a 50-billion-euro (67 billion dollars) economic stimulus package designed to cushion the effects of a deepening recession.

Hesse, one of Germany's most prosperous states where the banking centre of Frankfurt is located, has been administered by a caretaker government since inconclusive elections in January 2008.

The voting kicks off a super election year, which sees five of the country's 16 states go to the polls, as well as elections for a new president in May, European elections in June and a general election on September 27.

Opinion polls give Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) a comfortable lead over the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) in the state. The two parties rule together in an uneasy coalition in Berlin.

Voter support for the SPD has steadily eroded since it tried to unseat CDU Prime Minister Roland Koch by forming a parliamentary alliance with the Greens, backed by tacit support from the radical Left Party, which has its roots among former East German communists.

Latest opinion polls show the SPD's support ratings down to between 24-25 per cent, from 36.7 per cent in the 2008 election.

The CDU, on the other hand, has seen its popularity grow to 41-42 per cent from 36.8 per cent a year ago. With its preferred partner the Free Democrats tipped to win 13 per cent, the two could muster a comfortable majority in the 110-seat legislature in Wiesbaden.

Surveys show the Greens also running at 13 per cent, with the Left hovering around the 5 per cent needed to gain parliamentary representation, not enough to from a workable majority with the SPD.

Koch's challenger is Thorsten Schaefer-Guembel, 39, an SPD back- bencher who was plucked from obscurity to fight the election after a party revolt sidelined SPD leader Andrea Ypsilanti.

Koch, 50, has concentrated on selling himself as a crisis-manager at a time of growing economic uncertainty, a move that could make the CDU palatable to the Greens if a broader-based coalition is necessary.

A victory for the CDU would give it a boost in confidence in the run-up to the general election after the setback it suffered in a state election in Bavaria last September when its Christian Social Union sister party lost its absolute majority.

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