German left hopes to slow Merkel's momentum in key state vote

Mon Jan 7, 2013 8:39am EST
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By Noah Barkin

BRAUNSCHWEIG, Germany (Reuters) - A decade and a half ago, Gerhard Schroeder's resounding victory in a state vote in Lower Saxony gave his Social Democrats (SPD) the momentum they needed to seize power in Germany after 16 long years of conservative rule under Helmut Kohl.

The SPD is hoping for a similar game-changing win on January 20 when voters in the large western region go to the polls again, just eight months before Germany holds a federal election.

But this time, even if they do manage to defeat the state's conservative premier David McAllister, a rising star in Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), it will be tough to translate that success into victory in September, as they did in 1998.

Instead of an ageing Kohl to contend with, the SPD is up against his former protege Merkel, whose defense of German interests during the euro zone's debt crisis has made her the most popular politician in the country.

And in place of the charismatic Schroeder, who was anointed Kohl's challenger after his big win in Lower Saxony, the party is now pinning its hopes on Peer Steinbrueck, an acerbic former finance minister whose campaign to unseat Merkel has had a disastrous gaffe-filled start.

"It is a must-win for the SPD if they want to have any hope of beating Merkel in the autumn," said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at the Free University in Berlin. "It will be likened to Schroeder's victory in 1998 if they come out on top. But today's landscape is very different."

Bigger than the Netherlands, with which it shares a border, Lower Saxony is Germany's second-largest state by area, stretching from the North Sea to the edge of what used to be communist East Germany.

It is home to carmaker Volkswagen and hundreds of "Mittelstand", small-to-medium sized companies that form the backbone of Europe's largest economy.   Continued...

File photo of Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel arriving at the European Union (EU) council headquarters for an EU leaders summit in Brussels November 23, 2012. Angela Merkel, at the peak of her political powers, is gearing up to run for a third term and what she hopes will be a place in the history books alongside towering post-war German leaders like Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/Files