Merkel looks to Hesse before Germany votes

BERLIN — German conservatives led by Chancellor Angela Merkel are getting an unexpected chance to retake the state of Hesse — one of the biggest of the 16 German states, and home to Frankfurt, center of the country’s banking — months before the 2009 national election.

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Recent German politics has been riven by splits and quarrels that have raised questions about the likelihood of strong government at either state or federal levels. The country is in deep need of leadership as the financial crisis and recession take their toll on the largest European economy, but the traditional parties on both left and right are losing support.

Months of squabbling and limbo in Hesse have now ended with the rival Social Democrats declaring themselves unable to form a coalition to govern the state. Their failure gives Merkel’s party, and its leader in Hesse, Roland Koch, a chance at winning state elections slated for January.

Koch lost state elections 10 months ago after running a campaign that his critics called anti-immigrant. But he has had to stay on as head of a caretaker government, and opinion polls now have him as the clear favorite in January. Party leaders in the Christian Democratic Union, Merkel’s party, are preparing a big campaign for Koch, an ambitious politician once considered a possible candidate for the chancellery.

The Social Democrats, who tried to form a minority coalition with the Greens and vacillated over whether to include the more extreme Left party, finally gave up their attempt over the weekend. The Hesse Social Democrats have picked an unknown local politician, Thorsten Sch�fer-Gr�ber, to lead them into the January elections.

Hesse will be heavily contested, coming as it does just months ahead of the national elections, set to occur before autumn, in which Merkel will campaign to retain power and pull away from the Social Democrats. She has governed with them in an uneasy coalition since the 2005 elections left no clear victor.

Recently, the conservatives have fared badly with voters, most notably last month in Bavaria where the governing Christian Social Union — the Christian Democrats’ southern partner — lost its absolute majority for the first time since the 1960s.

But the Social Democrats have been weakened by their own conflicts between moderates and more traditional left-wingers over social and economic policy. They have thus failed to capitalize on the conservatives’ woes.

Opinion polls give the Social Democrats around 26 percent of the vote on the federal level, compared to 37 percent for the conservative bloc. The Left Party, which consists of trade unionists from western Germany and former communists from Eastern Germany, have about 12 per cent of the vote. To date, the Social Democrats have rejected any alliance with the Left.

Koch has gained from the political infighting among the Social Democrats of Hesse. Their leader, Andrea Ypsilanti, gave Koch a unexpectedly strong challenge in the state election last January, where she got 36.7 percent against 36.8 percent for Koch.

She rejected replicating the national «grand coalition» and tried to form a minority government with the Greens, dependent on Left support. That plan finally unraveled last week when four leading Social Democrats in Hesse rebelled against it.

Shaken, Ypsilanti said over the weekend that she would not run again against Koch. Her position had already been weakened after criticism by leading Social Democrats, including Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister tapped by the Social Democrats to challenge Merkel for the chancellery next year.

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DEL