Berlin: Chancellor Angela Merkel braced for a heavy electoral defeat in polls on Sunday in Germany`s second city Hamburg, with surveys showing her conservatives on course for a drubbing.
Voters in the first of seven state elections in what could prove to be an annus horribilis for Merkel are poised to hand power to the opposition Social Democrats (SPD), ending nearly a decade of conservative rule, polls show.
In the run-up to the election, the SPD was polling nearly double the support enjoyed by Merkel`s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
However, local issues have featured heavily in the campaign and surveys show the SPD`s lead over the CDU in Hamburg is not replicated nationwide, where the conservatives remain the most popular party.
The Hamburg election is an "absolute special case," said Manfred Guellner from polling institute Forsa.
Merkel herself sought to put on a brave face, telling a campaign rally: "In the last nine years, things have got gradually better for Hamburg."
But the SPD hopes to make it a uncomfortable year for Merkel, 56, who ditched the party at the last election in September 2009 in favour of a coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP).
Billed as the "dream coalition", it has turned out to be little short of a nightmare, with internal squabbles over several major issues and Merkel under fire for her handling of a series of economic crises in the eurozone.
After polling 14.6 percent in September 2009, carrying Merkel over the line, support for the FDP -- led by Foreign Minister and vice-chancellor Guido Westerwelle -- has collapsed to around five percent.
In Hamburg, the FDP risks not winning a single seat.
If the polls are correct and the SPD returns to power in the city state where they ruled the roost for 40 years before 2001, it will make it harder for Merkel to push through her political agenda.
In May, a defeat in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany`s most populous state, cost the coalition its majority in the upper house and a reverse in Hamburg would force her into more painful compromises with the opposition.
And while the opposition are keen to deliver an election setback in Hamburg, they are eyeing the bigger prize of Baden-Wuerttemberg on March 27, where the CDU risks losing power for the first time in 58 years.
The ecologist Greens, doing well in the polls nationally, also have high hopes for that election, buoyed by their opposition to plans to build a new train station in the state capital Stuttgart.
"For the CDU, Baden-Wuerttemberg is much more important (than Hamburg)," Michael Greven, political scientist at Hamburg University said.
"If they lose that state election, it will have repercussions at the federal level."