* Lower Saxony vote on Sunday kicks off German election year
* Merkel's CDU bounce back strongly in fourth-largest state
* Cliff-hanger vote between centre-right and centre-left
By Erik Kirschbaum
HANOVER, Jan 20 German Chancellor Angela
Merkel's Christian Democrats are hoping for victory in a state
contest on Sunday that could end a long losing streak and set
the tone for September's federal election.
Led by the premier of Lower Saxony, David McAllister, the
Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Free Democrat (FDP) allies
have drawn even in opinion polls with the centre-left Social
Democrat-Greens opposition in the northern state.
"The winds in Lower Saxony have turned and you can feel that
everywhere you go," McAllister said repeatedly during final
campaigning. The centre-right trailed by 13 points in surveys
First projections are expected once polls close at 6 p.m.
(1700 GMT) and preliminary results are due within an hour.
The CDU comeback has turned Germany's fourth-most populous
state - a genuine swing state - into a ferocious battleground,
with Merkel appearing seven times to campaign with McAllister,
the son of a soldier from Scotland. The CDU have suffered
setbacks in the last 12 state elections.
Merkel, one of the most popular politician in Germany thanks
to her handling of the euro zone debt crisis, hopes a victory in
Lower Saxony, an industrial and farming heartland, would give
her own re-election campaign a boost.
Local issues like education and idled motorway construction
projects were the dominant issues.
State officials said 23 percent of the 6.2 million eligible
voters had cast ballots by 12.30 (1130 GMT), indicating turnout
as sluggish as during the last election in 2008.
"The CDU is doing a good job," said Peter Pietschmann, 68, a
retired lathe operator, outside a polling station in the
snow-covered state capital Hanover. "Merkel's leading the
country well, better than the SPD could."
But Pete Karmarsch, a 44-year-old cook, said the incumbent
CDU-FDP coalition had neglected the interests of the middle- and
lower class and ignored the states' have-nots.
"I don't like their policies. I don't think they've been
good for Lower Saxony. It's time for a change. Hopefully today."
STEINBRUECK HURTS SPD
The SPD and the Greens, who had long been ahead of the
centre-right incumbents in polls, have watched in horror as
their lead evaporated. Local SPD leader Stephan Weil has been
hurt by gaffe-prone SPD chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrueck.
Weil, a solid if less colourful politician, is mayor of
Hanover. He first embraced Steinbrueck during 2012 but has kept
his distance since the chancellor candidate blundered -
complaining about the pay level for German leaders and saying
Merkel has an advantage because of her gender.
Many would blame Steinbrueck if the SPD failed to take power
in the state, fuelling speculation about whether he can remain
the SPD's banner carrier into the September election.
Weil has pointed to polls showing a neck-and-neck race. The
CDU were on 41 percent in a final survey on Thursday while the
FDP were at the 5 percent threshold needed for seats in the
state assembly. The SPD were on 33 percent and the Greens 13.
Wolfgang Rausch, 56, a master craftsman, said he would split
his two ballots and vote for both the CDU and their FDP
coalition partners - Germans have two ballots: one for a
candidate in their constituency and a second for the party.
"The CDU and FDP are better for Lower Saxony," said Rausch,
an independent businessman. "The CDU is doing a terrific job."
Annika Heinze said she found McAllister a more charismatic
and appealing candidate and likes Merkel but had voted for the
SPD mainly because of ideas on reforming education.
"Merkel's been doing a good job for Germany even though
she's a bit too passive at times," the 38-year-old high school
teacher said. "What the CDU has done with the education system
is not good at all. The SPD has better policies on schooling."
Since Merkel's re-election in 2009, it lost power to the SPD
and Greens in four important states: Hamburg,
Baden-Wuerttenberg, North Rhine-Westphalia and
But even if the CDU wins the most votes, their centre-right
coalition could be defeated if the FDP does not clear the 5
Merkel faces a similar dilemma at the national level, where
the CDU is ahead of the SPD but doubts remain about whether the
FDP will rise from the 4 percent they are getting in polls now.
FDP leader Philipp Roesler could be forced to resign if his
party falls short of or just scrapes past the threshold.