As Europe looks to Germany for guidance in the Greek debt crisis, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government risks a painful reverse at home in a state election this weekend that could make the country harder to govern.
Polls indicate the center-right coalition that runs Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia — which includes Cologne, Duesseldorf and the industrial Ruhr region — will struggle to win re-election Sunday.
If it doesn't, Merkel's national coalition, made up of the same parties, will lose its majority in parliament's upper house, which represents Germany's 16 states and must approve much major legislation. That would leave her having to haggle frequently with the opposition — increasing risks of political gridlock.
The election offers the first test of her government since it took office in October.
Its stock has slid after a rocky start, with the Greek saga coming on top of problems at home. Opposition leaders accuse Merkel of trying to sit out the Greece crisis until after this weekend to avoid annoying supporters.
"The big disappointment is that everyone credited her with an ability to lead, but now there is consensus that she was a good moderator but can't lead properly when the chips are down," said Nils Diederich, a political science professor at Berlin's Free University.
"Her behavior in the Greece story shows that quite clearly," he added. Merkel has produced "different positions and shifting positions, and with time that leads more to confusion than to clarity."
She initially won plaudits at home amid hostility to a bailout, but now faces a vote Friday — two days before the election — on legislation approving Germany's share, 22.4 billion euros ($28 billion) over three years.
Merkel said Thursday that "it was necessary to insist on a truly solid savings program for Greece."
"For me ... only if the problem is tackled at the root does credibility arise," she added. "I was criticized for that — OK. But in the end we always found a common position."
Freed last year from a "grand coalition" with her center-left rivals in which she shone as a consensus-builder, Merkel aimed to focus energetically on revving up Europe's biggest economy.
Instead, her conservative Christian Democrats and their new coalition partners, the pro-business Free Democrats, squabbled about the wisdom of making big tax cuts soon to stimulate the economy — appearing to avoid difficult decisions before this weekend's election.
The Free Democrats declined in polls as the appeal of their tax-cutting call faded.
Merkel may soon be back to consensus-building if she lacks a majority in the upper house. Her coalition currently controls 37 of the 69 votes in the upper house, six of those from North Rhine-Westphalia.
Diederich noted that German governments — including in Merkel's first term — often lack upper-house majorities. "I think Ms. Merkel's negotiating skills will be good enough," he said.
However, he acknowledged that it likely would make the government's life more difficult, with the opposition — which opposes tax cuts — in a position to influence policy.
Some 13.5 million people are eligible to vote in North Rhine-Westphalia.
The ballot offers the opposition Social Democrats a chance to win back a traditional heartland after a heavy national election defeat in September.
They led North Rhine-Westphalia for nearly four decades until the center-right captured it in 2005 amid discontent over then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's efforts to trim the welfare state.
Several permutations are possible if the center-right government doesn't win a majority.
Conservative governor Juergen Ruettgers might be able to form a different coalition; the Social Democrats hope to govern with the Greens but may be unable to. They say they won't team up with the hard-left Left Party, but Merkel has cast doubt on that.
She says the region "is an industrial state with many jobs ... and absolutely must not become a field for irresponsible political experiments."
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