BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany’s euroskeptic AfD party, which has been snatching away votes from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, may suffer a setback in a regional election on Sunday if it fails to clear the 5 percent hurdle in the city-state of Bremen.
Germany’s final local election of 2015 before a crowded vote calendar next year is also a key test for the recovering pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), who are eager to return to parliament in 2017 as a potential coalition partner for Merkel.
Voting stations opened in the western port city at 0800 (0600 GMT) and the first exit polls are expected right after polling stations close at 1800 (1600 GMT).
The Alternative for Germany (AfD), founded in 2013 opposing eurozone bailouts for states such as Greece, has recently been in decline, wracked by infighting and an east-west split.
Afd registered up to 10 percent in national opinion polls last year, but has dropped to 5 percent in recent surveys.
In Bremen, polls put both AfD and FDP at the 5 percent threshold needed to win seats in the state assembly.
The centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), who have ruled Germany’s smallest state since 1946 with different coalition partners, are expected to come out on top again with around 36 percent and rule alone or continue with their Greens allies.
Despite popular Merkel’s active campaigning in Bremen, her Christian Democrats (CDU) face another debacle and are at just 23 percent in polls — ahead of the Greens, projected to win 15 percent. The Left party are polling 8 percent.
But the conservative CDU, traditionally weak in cities like Bremen, could take comfort if the AfD’s winning streak is stopped. The euroskeptic party has won seats in four of the country’s 16 states since last summer.
The AfD’s drift further right - and a ferocious internal battle over its appeal to far-right voters - has frightened away centrist voters, especially in western Germany.
Additional reporting by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Kim Coghill