Germany’s weakened Social Democrats (SPD) look likely to lose the state of Bremen after seven decades next week in an election that could set the clock ticking on their strained national coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Polls before the May 26 vote in the northern trading city, home to Beck’s beer, reflects the disillusionment among supporters fed up with a party they feel has lost its way after serving 10 of the last 14 years as Ms Merkel’s kingmaker.
Losing Bremen, the country’s smallest state with a population of just 680,000 people, would represent an earthquake for the party that has held it for 73 years. No other German state has been ruled by the same party for so long.
“Bremen is small but the psychological impact of this election is big,” said Kevin Kuehnert, the leftist leader of the SPD’s youth wing Jusos, who has caused an uproar by suggesting firms such as BMW should be collectivised.
Elections to the European Parliament take place on the same day and could pile further pressure on the coalition.
A lacklustre SPD showing could be the outcome for a junior coalition partner that has consistently failed to take credit for its achievements and which leaves Ms Merkel to enjoy the limelight.
But for some, such as Mr Kuehnert’s supporters, it would be a clear call for change and a more left-wing agenda in opposition.
“There is too much complacency. We need a change – the SPD has done alright but it’s been too long. They need time out – here and nationally,” said teacher Jochen Lang at a sausage stand in a car park where the Greens, SPD and CDU campaigned.
A reluctant SPD was effectively forced last year to re-enter a Merkel-led coalition by the president after talks on a three-way tie-up without the centre-left party collapsed at a time when support for the far-right AfD was surging.
Last year, a row over migrant policy nearly brought down the coalition and SPD chief Andrea Nahles acknowledged she had made a mistake over the fudged ousting of the domestic spy chief.
The party will review its role in the coalition at the end of the year, after three more state elections in the former Communist East, and the party is divided over whether to stay. Ms Nahles wants it to carry on and said on Tuesday that the grand coalition “is not threatened by any result”.
But defeat for quietly spoken Bremen leader Carsten Sieling (60) may well cause many members to call time and could eventually trigger a snap election laden with risks for both the SPD and the chancellor’s conservative bloc.
The timing of Ms Merkel’s exit has been a subject of speculation since she handed the leadership of the CDU to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer last year.