Merkel woos the state she cannot afford to lose

Tony Paterson reports from Wuppertal ahead of Sunday's crucial election
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The Independent Online

Angela Merkel had put on a bright pea-coloured jacket in what looked like a subliminal attempt to enlist the support of Green voters. The noisy army of young eco-activists and leftists in dirty jeans and combat jackets was clearly not in the mood for sartorial games.

They came equipped with sirens, water pistols and loudspeakers, chanting "Get Lost!" in unison until they started to get hoarse. Ms Merkel who once enjoyed the almost presidential title of "Chancellor of all the Germans" tried desperately to shut them up. "You people have no idea what I am talking about," the 56-year-old leader shouted as she tried to spell out the reasons why her government was pledging to spend billions of euros on bailing out Greece.

The gathering of leftists and Greens responded by brandishing anti-nuclear and "Solidarity with Greece" placards and unleashing a torrent of red and green helium-filled balloons into the leaden skies above Wuppertal, a dingy town of empty shopping arcades that had clearly seen better days.

The balloons symbolised the colours of the Green and Social Democratic parties that are threatening to oust Ms Merkel's coalition from power in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state, in a key election this Sunday. The outcome will be crucial for the future of Ms Merkel's ruling coalition in Berlin, which – like the government of North Rhine-Westphalia – is made up of an alliance of liberals and conservatives.

If the Chancellor's parties lose on the Rhine this weekend, then her government will automatically forfeit its majority in the Bundestag, Germany's upper house of parliament. Her administration would then find it difficult – if not impossible – to implement its programme of reforms and tax cuts. The consequences would be dire: the once well-starred Merkel coalition could rapidly turn into a lame duck government nominally in charge of Europe's biggest economy during the European Union's worst crisis to date.

In Wuppertal this week, Ms Merkel was clearly fighting for her political life. At what was supposed to be a key rally for her ruling conservative Christian Democrats during the final stages of an election campaign, her party members were almost outnumbered by their political opponents.

Her popularity rating, which less than three months ago was around the 70 per cent mark, has slumped to 48 per cent. Opinion polls in North Rhine-Westphalia, which once gave the state's ruling coalition of conservatives and liberals a clear lead have also nosedived. The two parties are neck and neck with the opposition Greens and Social Democrats. "It's about Merkel" is how Germany's Die Zeit weekly newspaper put it yesterday in a front-page headline "The Chancellor may overstep the limit of her power in North Rhine-Westphalia."

The Merkel government had been hoping to repeat its seemingly effortless general election win of late 2009 in North Rhine-Westphalia this weekend. Her administration had almost taken winning the election for granted, and ruling coalition parties had run mostly unremarkable campaigns. "Both parties wanted to leave dealing with the big national problems of health reform, tax cuts and nuclear power, until after the election in Germany's most populous state," commented Der Spiegel.

However the Greek debt problem has seen Ms Merkel's laissez-faire strategy backfire with a vengeance. The Chancellor not only underestimated overwhelming taxpayer opposition to the idea of funding a bailout for a country perceived to have cheated its way into the euro club. She had also not bargained with a vitriolic campaign against any Greek rescue package being conducted day in day by the influential mass circulation Bild newspaper.

Her predicament has been further exacerbated by her failed attempt to put off any decision about Greece until after this Sunday. The local "Rent a Rüttgers" scandal has made a bad situation worse. The regional wing of her party has been accused of offering companies meetings with the state's veteran conservative prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Jürgen Rüttgers,in exchange for cash.

In Wuppertal on Wednesday night, Ms Merkel was trying desperately to buck the tide of adverse opinion and justify the Greek bailout. "It's our euro and it is our job to ensure its stability and to protect our citizens," she told the crowd, "But we are only going to do it if Greece finally starts saving."

Her efforts to re-cast herself as the guardian angel of German interests – a role she enjoyed at the height of the global financial crisis – was not entirely successful. Frank Blechschmidt, a retired company manager and hitherto dyed-in-the-wool conservative was among the sceptics. "It's like pouring money into a firm that has already declared bankruptcy," he said. "We're never going to see a cent of it given back."

With less than 48 hours to go before polling, it is too late to gauge whether Ms Merkel's last-ditch offensive is working. But she of all politicians knows the importance of North Rhine-Westphalia: it was the defeat of her predecessor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats in the state in 2005 that triggered the early German general election that swept her into power.

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