As Germany gears up for national elections in September, the southwestern state of Saarland is preparing to elect its local parliament.

Voters are casting their ballots today on Sunday in a poll seen as the first test of the newly-resurgent Social Democrats (SPD) against Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU).

Sunday's vote is seen as an indicator of Angela Merkel 's chances to be re-elected as chancellor. But she's facing a tough challenge from the Social Democrats under their new leader, Martin Schulz.

The SPD - currently the junior partner in a coalition led by the CDU in the sparsely populated state that borders France and Luxembourg - has come within two percentage points of its conservative rival in a poll conducted by INSA earlier this week.

The centre-left party's electoral ascent, both at the state and at the national level, has been attributed to hopes that its new party leader, former EU bureaucrat Martin Schulz, can unseat Merkel in Germany's national election in September.

Since Schulz took over the party's leadership from Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel earlier this year, the SPD has gained about 10 percentage points in various polls in what has come to be referred to as the "Schulz effect."

The Saarland poll is also likely to see the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) enter the state legislature for the first time, while the environmentalist Greens are expected to fall short of the 5-per-cent hurdle to enter parliament.

Merkel, who has headed three consecutive governments since 2005, has come under fire at home for her decision to open the country's borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants in 2015.

She has also been accused of shifting her party to the left of the political spectrum and co-opting some of the SPD's core messages, thereby fuelling the rise of the AfD.

Polling stations open at 8am (06:00 GMT) across Saarland, with the first projections due to be announced after the polls close at 6 pm.

Source: DPA news agency

Europe, Germany, Politics, Elections