By Sarah Marsh and Andreas Rinke
BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Social Democrats are on track to win an election in Germany's smallest state, the city of Bremen, on Sunday, a vote that could give a modest lift to the centre-left party that has slumped to around 20% in national opinion polls.
Bremen is not deemed a political bellwether for other parts of Germany given its specific characteristics as an industrial port city and its small size - it has just 570,000 inhabitants. By contrast, the states of Bavaria and Hesse, which will hold elections in October, together comprise nearly a quarter of Germany's population of 83.2 million.
Still, Bremen is the first federal state to hold an election this year and as such, the results will be closely watched.
Polls in Bremen currently put the SPD on 29-30% - 10 percentage points better than on a national level where it has slumped since the 2019 federal election amid a cost of living crisis in the wake of the Ukraine war.
The conservatives are polling in second place on 26-28%, meaning the SPD could win back its pole position in its traditional stronghold.
The SPD actually came in behind the conservatives in the last Bremen election in 2019 although it went on to form the ruling coalition along with the environmentalist Greens and far-left Left party, and choose its mayor, Andreas Bovenschulte.
Whether Bovenschulte would opt to continue that coalition if the SPD did win remains unclear; the Greens are currently polling 13% and the Left party, 9-11%, meaning the SPD would have sufficient support.
But the Left party is on fragile ground at a national level due to internal strife which could have regional repercussions.
Meanwhile the SPD and the conservatives have not run a fractious election campaign in Bremen - a car hub that is turning into a key port for the growing offshore wind industry - and could in theory also chose to govern in a grand coalition.
Separately, the Free Democrats (FDP), a junior partner in Scholz's federal coalition, are polling at 6%, boosting chances that it will make it past the 5% threshold to enter parliament after failing to do so in three votes last year.
Those upsets prompted the FDP, who are in coalition nationally with the SPD and Greens but not a natural ideological fit with either, to become more assertive, fomenting coalition strife. A good showing in Bremen could ease those tensions.
The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has surged in nationwide polls to 15-17%, was excluded from the ballot in Bremen due to internal divisions.
That has given a boost to local right-wing populist party Buerger in Wut (Citizens in Rage). It is focusing on immigration and fighting crime and is now polling 9-10%, up from 3% a few months ago.
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh, Andreas Rinke and Alexander Ratz; editing by Mark Heinrich)