* Chancellor Merkel's party faces another regional defeat
* Loss in Berlin vote would be sixth defeat for CDU in 2011
* Pirate Party soars in pre-election opinion polls
(Adds voter turn out)
By Erik Kirschbaum
Berlin, Sept 18 Chancellor Angela Merkel's
conservatives face a heavy defeat in a regional election on
Sunday that would extend their losing streak to six states this
year and weaken her hand before a crucial euro zone vote in
Opinion polls show Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) will
win about 22 percent of the vote in the city-state of Berlin on
Sunday and come a distant second to the centre-left Social
Democrats (SPD), who are forecast to win about 31 percent and
stay in power with either the Greens or the Left party.
The polls in Berlin opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and the
first exit polls will be announced immediately after polls close
at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT).
According to electoral data as of 1000 GMT only 19.1 percent
of the 2.5 million Berliners eligible to vote had gone to the
polls, less than the 22.3 percent seen at the same stage of the
last regional election in 2006. It rained for most of the day on
Merkel, under fire for her hesitant leadership in the euro
zone crisis, is halfway through a four-year term. But election
setbacks for her CDU have hurt her standing before the vote on
euro zone measures in parliament at the end of September.
"I never really liked Merkel anyway, and she doesn't seem to
be doing a good job leading at all," said Claudia Barre, 31, an
insurance sales woman on her way to vote.
There could be more bad news for Merkel's centre-right
coalition in Berlin if her junior coalition partners, the Free
Democrats (FDP), fail to win at least five percent of the vote
and are ejected from the state assembly.
It would be the fifth time in seven elections this year that
the FDP had failed to win five percent and could increase
pressure on the party, which won a record 14.6 percent in the
2009 federal election, to remove Foreign Minister Guido
Westerwelle. Polls show the FDP at about 2 percent.
Another surprise on Sunday could be the performance of the
Pirate Party, a German branch of a party that emerged in Sweden
five years ago to campaign for reform of copyright and better
privacy in the Internet age. Polls show it winning 9 percent.
SPD BUILDS MOMENTUM
The SPD, in opposition at the national level since 2009,
wants likely re-election in Berlin on Sunday to build up
momentum to oust Merkel in the next federal election in 2013.
The SPD has ousted or helped defeat the CDU in Hamburg and
Baden-Wuerttemberg this year and remained in power elsewhere.
The CDU has lost five of six regional votes. A bad result in
Berlin, Germany's largest city with 3.4 million, would add to
Merkel's woes before a Bundestag vote on Sept. 29 to give the
European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF) more powers.
The euro crisis has crept into the campaign in Berlin, with
Merkel using a local radio interview ostensibly on city issues
to quash talk of an imminent Greek default .
Klaus Wowereit of the SPD, Berlin's mayor, should be
re-elected for a third term after finishing strongly in what
appeared to be a tight battle against the environmentalist
"Wowereit has done a very good job over the last 10 years,
but this election campaign hasn't been very exciting at all
because it was clear from the start he was going to win again,"
said Yvonne Wagner, a 42-year-old mother.
"The CDU hasn't been a factor in Berlin for a long time.
They seem a bit out of touch here," she added.
Victory could bolster Wowereit's credentials as the darling
of the SPD's left and make him a candidate to run against Merkel
in 2013. So far former finance minister Peer Steinbrueck, on the
SPD's right, has seemed to be the front runner.
The CDU candidate against Wowereit attracted little
enthusiasm and the party will be fortunate to do better than in
the last election in 2006 -- 21.3 percent. The Greens are
projected to win 18 percent while the Left -- Wowereit's current
partners in city government -- are expected to win 11 percent.
A spate of apparently random night-time arson attacks on
cars in Berlin, with more than 530 set alight, gave the CDU a
chance to attack Wowereit's record on crime-fighting.
But the mayor's distinctive Berlin accent, charismatic smile
and popular touch have lifted his party in opinion polls. One of
his campaign posters shows a toddler with an impish smile trying
to bite off Wowereit's nose with her glove puppet.
Wowereit has ruled in alliance with the Left for 10 years
but could switch allegiance to the Greens.
The Greens, whose popularity soared earlier this year after
Japan's nuclear disaster, had hoped to win in Berlin after
taking the prosperous Baden-Wuerttemberg state from the CDU.
With former cabinet minister Renate Kuenast as the party's
mayoral candidate, it was ahead in some polls in late 2010 and
early 2011, until Wowereit managed to rally.
(Reporting By Erik Kirschbaum; editing by Elizabeth Piper)