German voters went to the polls in a state election on Sunday that is seen as a crucial test for conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel ahead of a national vote later this year.

Some 6.1 million eligible voters were casting their ballots in Lower Saxony, home to Volkswagen and many small industries, in a vote that polls indicated would be neck-and-neck.

The power balance in the north-western state matches that at the national level, with Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) ruling in coalition with the embattled Free Democrats (FDP). Their challengers are the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Green Party, who also hope to grab power nationally in September polls, as well as small groups such as the Left and Pirate parties.

Voting in Lower Saxony was due to end at 6 p.m. (1700 GMT), when public television networks ARD and ZDF were due to release exit polls. Final results were expected around 11 p.m.

The latest surveys put combined support for the CDU and FDP coalition, headed by state premier David McAllister, at around 46 per cent - the same level as for the SPD-Green team.

The SPD in the state is led by Stephan Weil, the mayor of Hanover, who hopes to take over as premier from Scottish-German born Mr. McAllister in Germany’s second-biggest State by size.

The wild card in Sunday’s race was the pro-business FDP, which has in recent polls struggled to cross the 5 percent threshold needed to re-enter parliament.

If the party crashes out of the legislature, its under-fire leader Philipp Roesler, Germany’s vice chancellor and economy minister, is expected to lay down his party leadership post.

The FDP’s weakness has been a major cause for concern for Ms. Merkel, as she campaigns nationally against the SPD’s top candidate Peer Steinbrueck, a former finance minister.

Ms. Merkel is consistently voted one of Germany’s most popular politicians for her handling of the eurozone crisis and of the German economy, which has outperformed others in Europe.

But if the FDP doesn’t make it back into the Bundestag legislature in September, Ms. Merkel’s CDU would have to seek either a “grand coalition” with the SPD or a partnership with the Greens.

Sunday’s state election also has a direct impact on national politics. An SPD-Greens victory would give them a stronger hand in the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat.

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