Germany is embarking this weekend on an unexpectedly hectic state election season that could deepen the troubles of Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition ahead of a national vote due next year.
This was supposed to be a quiet year in Germany's electoral calendar _ a relief for Merkel after a vote-packed 2011 brought a series of disasters for her partners in the national government, the pro-market Free Democrats, and ended her own party's five-decade rule in one traditional stronghold.
But thanks to regional political maneuvering, Merkel now faces three state elections, rather than the one originally planned. They culminate with a May 13 vote in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia.
Opposition Green party leader Claudia Roth says the elections will send "an important signal for the 2013 election at federal level." The center-left opposition hopes that signal will be that it is well-placed to oust Merkel late next year.
On Sunday, the small, economically depressed western state of Saarland kicks off the voting. There, Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats risk losing its 13-year hold on the governor's office to the center-left Social Democrats, the biggest national opposition party.
That would be a symbolic blow to the chancellor, because it would be the fourth state governor she has lost since 2010, said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University.
The situation is worse for the junior coalition partner. Polls in all three states with elections currently show the Free Democrats below the 5 percent of the vote needed to win seats in regional legislatures _ reflecting their dire situation in national polls.
The party has been battered by its failure to win the tax cuts it promised before Germany's 2009 elections, and by perceptions that it is drifting and deserves much of the blame for frequent squabbling in Merkel's coalition.
Voters ejected the Free Democrats, often called "the liberals" for their economic positions, from five state parliaments last year. Vice Chancellor Philipp Roesler, who has little to boast of since he was elected party leader last May, can ill afford another three wipeouts.
Failing to win seats May 6 in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein and _ worse _ a week later in North Rhine-Westphalia, a politically weighty region of 18 million people, would raise serious questions about Roesler's future and the prospect of more infighting and upheaval that could distract the government.
"This is an absolutely decisive election for us," Christian Lindner, the Free Democrats' lead candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia, told Deutschlandfunk radio. "It's about ... whether there is a voice of freedom in Germany's parliaments, a consistently liberal party."
Despite the Free Democrats' troubles, Merkel's Christian Democrats remain popular nationally and the chancellor's personal approval ratings have been bolstered by her hard-nosed handling of the eurozone debt crisis. And for now, there is little obvious incentive for either partner to consider early national elections.
National polls show a majority neither for the current coalition nor for the center-left Social Democrats and Greens, who ran Germany from 1998 to 2005.
The elections in Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia will help show whether the center-left pair have a hope of winning next year, political scientist Neugebauer said.
In Schleswig-Holstein, they hope to oust a center-right state government; and in North Rhine-Westphalia, a traditional stronghold, they appear well placed to win a majority.
The center-left parties ran that state in a minority government for two years, but it fell this month _ three years early _ when it failed to get approved a budget that opponents described as irresponsibly spendthrift at a time when Europe is tightening its belt.
Merkel says voters have a chance to decide on "a stable government that thinks more of the future and doesn't obstruct opportunities by running up more and more debt."
The Saarland election also is being held more than two years ahead of schedule after its government collapsed in January.
The center-left's chances may be influenced by how well the upstart Pirate Party performs. The party, which is seeking to expand its appeal beyond calls for Internet freedom, entered its first state legislature last year and hopes to establish itself firmly as a political force this year.