Saxony, Thuringia and Saarland go to the polls on Sunday. With a general election barely a month away, national party leaders are nervously anticipating results that will set the tone for the impending campaign.
Although the three states contesting elections on Sunday are hardly the largest or most populous in Germany, they could provide critical indications of which way September's general election will go. Not only will the results act as a preliminary opinion poll for the national election, the state coalitions formed afterwards will be widely seen as blueprints for a national government.
But national leaders are only too aware that the make-up of these new state coalitions will influence the electorate throughout the country. And the situation is perilous. While gaining power in the states remains the overriding aim on Sunday, unpopular state coalition partners could have a disastrous effect on the national polls in September.
For the Social Democratic Party, the balance will be particularly tricky to strike. Unwilling to become typecast as junior partners in uncomfortable state coalitions with the Christian Democrats, their best chance of taking one of the state premierships up for grabs this weekend will be to ally with the Left party. But on a national level, the successor to the former East German communist party remains political strychnine.
The CDU have maintained a solid lead in all three states, where they currently hold the state premierships, but their poll ratings have declined steadily over the past legislative period, and they are in real danger of losing power in one of them. Though she remains the national favorite, a setback in one of these states will be an unwelcome bump in Chancellor Angela Merkel's return to power.
The central question in the former East German state of Saxony remains the role to be played by the far-right National Democratic Party. The NPD achieved a triumphant 9.2 percent in the last state election in 2004, returning eight representatives to the parliament in Dresden. They finished less than one percent behind the SPD and well ahead of both the Free Democratic Party and the Greens.
NPD leader Holger Apfel is on the brink of returning his far-right party to the Saxon parliament
The Saxony NPD's support in the polls has caved in since then, partly due to funding scandals and internal feuding, but their aggressive election campaign, led by top candidate Holger Apfel, has put them in a position to get the five percent of votes necessary to regain entry into the parliament.
But in the last five years the NPD have been comprehensively overtaken by the pro-business FDP, who have emerged from ex-parliamentary obscurity to current poll ratings of around 10 percent. Should election results reflect the latest polls, a "black-yellow" coalition of CDU and FDP is the likeliest government, with the relatively new and unknown CDU state premier Stanislaw Tillich set to assume power.
Despite protestations to the contrary, state premier Dieter Althaus' serious ski accident in January has distorted the election campaign in Thuringia. Having survived a coma and narrowly avoiding brain damage, the 41-year-old CDU politician has fought relentlessly to prove his fitness to retain office. But he has faced criticism, even from within his own party, for his remorseless determination and was recently ordered by an Austrian court to keep details of the accident out of his election campaign. According to media reports, the family of the woman killed in the accident was outraged by public discussion of the accident.
CDU state premier Dieter Althaus of Thuringia is no longer allowed to mention his deadly skiing accident
The biggest threat to Althaus remains a possible "red-red" coalition between the SPD and the Left party. Both left-wing parties are keen to depose Althaus and form a government and with current polls promising them a combined 43 percent of the electorate, they are could realize their ambitions.
But such a government would require some political acrobatics, because the Left currently leads the SPD in public opinion polls. Mindful of the Left party's national unpopularity, and under pressure from his national leadership, SPD top candidate Christoph Matschie has ruled out joining a coalition that would give the Left party the state premiership. It is rumored, though, that Left party candidate Bodo Ramelow is so eager to gain power in this pivotal election, that he is prepared cede that privilege to the SPD. This would set an unpalatable precedent likely to be roundly criticized by the CDU in September.
The Saarland election was long believed to be the Left party's best chance to secure its first state premiership and its first participation in a state government in western Germany. Success for its top candidate and national party leader Oskar Lafontaine would somewhat free the Left party from its stigma as Germany's political pariah. Lafontaine ruled Saarland for 13 years for the SPD from 1985 to 1998 and he still enjoys considerable popularity in the small border state, despite his dramatic SPD defection in 2005.
CDU state premier Peter Mueller, here at a local folk festival, could lose his absolute majority in Saarland
But after some heady poll ratings in 2008 and early 2009 nearly saw the Left overtake the SPD, they are now languishing at around 15 percent. The SPD is also at a weak 25 percent, leaving a simple "red-red" coalition looking very unlikely. But the absolute majority won by the CDU under state premier Peter Mueller five years ago is now also about to meet its end, with the CDU in steady decline since 2004. Even the support of the FDP may not be enough to re-install Mueller, which could leave the Green party, with its paltry six percent of the vote, as kingmaker in the tiny state.