German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made a concerted campaign push ahead of the Lower Saxony elections. The north-western state is seen as a bellwether ahead of this year's national election.
Merkel concluded the first major rally of what is expected to be a heated national election campaign Saturday in Lower Saxony, appearing alongside State Premier David McAllister to form a duo dubbed by the German media as "McMerkel."
"Now it really starts," said McAllister to 5,000 supporters at a hall in Braunschweig.
The Lower Saxony vote on January 20 is seen as the starting point for campaigning for the general election, which will take place in September. Boasting similar demographics to Germany as a whole, Lower Saxony is seen as bellwether for the nation.
The "black-yellow" coalition between Merkel and McAllister's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and the pro-market Free Democrats (FDP) that holds the majority in the national parliament, the Bundestag, is also mirrored at the state level in Lower Saxony.
It was a packed schedule for the two, who spoke in the port city of Wilhelmshaven and Braunschweig, in the southeast of the state, during their two-day, statewide rally.
Top of the agenda was the wish to continue with the current coalition between the CDU and the currently struggling FDP, but Merkel played down the state election's national implications.
"The state government has kept its word," said Merkel in a speech focusing on what the two parties had achieved at the state level. She added that instead of the endless eurozone crisis, families, schools and infrastructure are the central issues in Lower Saxony.
A national poll Friday from German broadcaster ARD put the CDU at a five-year high of 41 percent, but the struggling FDP currently poll under 5 percent, below the cutoff mark for re-entry into parliament.
The FDP's low numbers nationally leave doubt over whether the coalition can continue in the Bundestag.
Vice Chancellor and Economics Minister Philipp Rösler, who heads the FDP, has drawn criticism for his party's waning popularity.
If the FDP fails to remain in parliament in Rösler's home state of Lower Saxony, most observers agree the party leader's political days will be numbered.
Recent figures from the opinion polling institution Infratest published in the Welt am Sonntag newspaper say that 64 percent of citizens believe Rösler will leave office this year.
Social Democrats in the fold
The struggles of the CDU-FPD government in Lower Saxony are an opportunity for the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) to gain momentum ahead of this fall's national election.
The SPD hopes to retake power through a coalition with the Greens, whose popularity has surged to around 12 percent in national polls.
The two parties previously ruled Germany in a coalition under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder from 1998 to 2005.
dr/ch (dpa, Reuters, dapd)