Gerhard Schröder's ruling Social Democrats face a humiliating defeat in city state elections in Hamburg tomorrow when voters will test the popularity of his government's controversial programme to reform the German economy.
Opinion polls published yesterday predicted the German Chancellor's party would win about 30 per cent of the vote in its former stronghold compared to 45 per cent for the governing Christian Democrats, which could give the conservatives an absolute majority. The conservatives have based their campaign around the city's gay Christian Democrat mayor, Ole von Beust, who has a 58 per cent popularity rating against 26 per cent for Thomas Mirow, the lacklustre SPD candidate.
Christian Democrat election posters plastered throughout Hamburg city centre depicted simply the face of Mr von Beust and the slogan "Vote Ole". By contrast, Mr Mirow has complained of being unfairly called to account for the Berlin government's unpopular reforms.
Tomorrow's poll is the first in a gruelling marathon of 14 regional, municipal and European elections over the next year, which are likely to set a trend for the general election in 2006.
All are being taken as a test of Mr Schröder's unpopular Agenda 2010 programme, ratified last year, which aims to kick-start the ailing economy and reduce the 4.5 million unemployment burden with welfare cuts and curbs on restrictive labour market practices.
Franz Müntefering, the new Social Democrat party leader designate, admitted last week: "However the Social Democrats fare in Hamburg, their performance will be taken as an important indicator in Berlin."
Yet the Hamburg election could hardly have come at a worse time for Mr Schröder. His party's popularity rating is at a record low of 25 per cent and if a general election were held tomorrow, the Christian Democrats could romp home with 45 per cent of the vote.
Mr Schröder's position within his own party is perilous. Three weeks ago, he was forced to resign as party leader in the face of a rebellion from grassroots activists and left-wing members infuriated by his reform programme, which many regard as a travesty of the principles of "social justice". Nearly 150,000 Social Democrats have quit the party since Mr Schröder was elected in 1998; 60,000 left the party last year and a further 10,000 have resigned this year. "It is like being aboard the Bounty, the party is on the verge of mutiny," saida spokeswoman for the SPD's left wing.
There has been speculation that the leadership will put its reforms on hold if the party's popularity continues to slide. Mr Schröder and Mr Müntefering have rejected the idea, but with Social Democrats still smarting from a crushing defeat in Bavaria last October, a drubbing in Hamburg would deepen the despair.Reuse content