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BERLIN -- Chancellor Angela Merkel's party faces a drubbing in Germany's most populous state Sunday in a snap election that could provide impetus to her main rivals in the countdown to 2013 national polls.
A week after voters in Greece and France clearly plumped for anti-austerity policies, the citizens of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) could also punish conservative champions of belt-tightening.
Some 13.2 million voters -- more than a fifth of Germany's electorate -- are choosing a new regional parliament in the bellwether western state which hosts a major industrial base.
The region historically plays a big role in federal politics -- in 2005, a lost vote in NRW prompted then chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to call a snap federal election which saw Merkel wrest power from him.
Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is fighting to capture the powerhouse state from a coalition made up of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and ecologist Greens.
Despite surveys consistently revealing strong national support among German voters for Merkel's austerity drive in Europe and for her party, the CDU is trailing the SPD by six or seven points in opinion polls taken in the NRW vote.
The polls suggest that SPD's popular lead candidate, state premier Hannelore Kraft, could again be headed into a coalition with the Greens and, unlike last time, enjoy a majority.
The poll was triggered after her minority state government unexpectedly fell when the regional parliament failed to pass a draft budget after just 22 months in power.
Merkel's allies at federal level, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), have seen their forecasted share of the vote rise under the party's NRW contender Christian Lindner.
Last year and earlier this year the FDP have humiliatingly failed to secure enough votes to get back into six state parliaments.
Merkel has denied her tie-up with the FDP nationally will be influenced by the outcome of Sunday's vote.
"The election on Sunday is an important state parliament election for North Rhine-Westphalia -- no more, no less," she told the Ruhr Nachrichten newspaper this week.
But, under a headline asking "How much longer?", Die Zeit newspaper commented that the NRW vote could be a "fateful day" for Merkel. "Angela Merkel is at the peak of her power -- and knows, now it becomes quite tough," it said.
Facing off against Kraft as state premier is the CDU's main candidate, Norbert Roettgen, also Merkel's environment minister, whose gaffe-prone campaign has focused on austerity.
Another party to watch is the new-kids-on-the-block Pirate party, which has now entered three state parliaments since September on a platform of more transparency in the political process and Internet freedom.