By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right coalition could face a further drubbing at the polls on Sunday in a regional election in Germany's poorest state, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) have been junior coalition partners to the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) in the sparsely populated state on the Baltic shore but could be knocked out and replaced by the Left party or even the Greens.
Voter turnout at midday was running well below the levels in the last election in 2006. State officials said that only 29.8 percent of the state's 1.4 million eligible voters had cast their ballots by 1400 (8 a.m. EDT), below 35.4 percent in 2006.
The polls opened at 8 a.m. (2 a.m. EDT) and will close at 6 p.m. (12 p.m. EDT). Exit polls will then be flashed on TV networks with preliminary results due later in the evening.
The state was basking in sunny and warm weather, which after a damp summer has kept voter turnout down. That could give a boost to smaller parties, especially the far-right NPD. The total voter turnout was 59.1 percent in the last vote in 2006.
The CDU, which has been punished in five regional elections in what has been a dreary year for Merkel, has already lost control of two states to the SPD this year.
Two years before the next scheduled federal election, the CDU is also slumping in national polls -- in part due to general discontent over Merkel and over her hesitant leadership during the euro zone crisis. Her Berlin coalition partners, the Free Democrats, may even be ejected from the state assembly.
Opinion polls in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern put the SPD at about 37 percent, well above their 30.2 percent in 2006 with the CDU polling about 27 percent, down from 28.8 in 2006. The Left are on 17 percent after 16.8 percent five years ago.
A poor result and being ejected from the government in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern would be a personal setback for Merkel, who campaigned heavily there with nine appearances before she canceled a final speech after her 85-year-old father died.
Merkel's constituency in parliament is also located in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
Yet another election defeat for the CDU could cause further nervousness among backbenchers in the Berlin parliament worried about their job security. Merkel's coalition faces a difficult vote on the euro zone bailout on September 29 and there are already fears that not enough coalition deputies will back Merkel.
The Greens, riding high in national polls in the wake of the Japanese nuclear disaster, are expected to win 9 percent after 3.4 percent in 2006. If the Greens clear the five percent hurdle in the state, the environmental party will have seats in all 16 German states for the first time.
The state premier of the northeastern state that borders Poland, Erwin Sellering of the SPD, is keeping his options open on coalition partners. Local polls show most in the state want to see a continuation of the SPD-CDU coalition.
"We have to keep pushing for jobs and that means jobs with decent wages," Sellering said in a recent speech. "And we've got to make sure that social fairness prevails without spending more state money. Whoever agrees to that will be our partner."
FAR RIGHT NPD COULD GET SEATS AGAIN
The far-right NPD party could win seats in the assembly again after winning 7.3 percent in 2006. The NPD are polling about 4.5 percent but often do better in elections than in the polls -- as supporters conceal their intentions to pollsters.
The Free Democrats (FDP), junior coalition partners in Berlin but only an opposition party in Schwerin, face a humiliating defeat in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
The FDP could be ejected from the state assembly with a projected 4 percent, down from 9.6 percent in 2006.
Another regional drubbing could raise pressure on FDP leaders to fire unpopular Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who is widely blamed for the party's steep slide.
Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, with 1.6 million people, has struggled since German unification. Many of the region's industries, such as shipbuilding, collapsed after unification in 1990 because they were uncompetitive.
Unemployment soared and is now 12 percent -- triple the level in southern Germany. The state's population also shrunk as many skilled workers moved west in search of jobs.
Wages in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern are the lowest in Germany and even below European Union averages. Those dire economic conditions have helped the far-right NPD.
(Additional reporting by Brian Rohan,; Editing by Rosalind Russell)