Sun May 14, 2017 09:14AM
A voter casts her ballot during North Rhine-Westphalia state elections, in a gardening center in the western town of Cologne, May 14, 2017. (Photo by AFP)
A voter casts her ballot during North Rhine-Westphalia state elections, in a gardening center in the western town of Cologne, May 14, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

Germans have taken to the polls in the country’s most populous state in a vote that pundits say could determine Germany’s future political direction.

The western state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), with 17.9 million people, is home to nearly a quarter of Germany’s population.

The NRW, which encompasses major cities, including Cologne and Dusseldorf, as well as the Ruhr industrial region, has been mostly ruled by the center-left Social Democrat (SPD) Party for more than half a century.

However, pre-election polls indicated that the SPD is in a tie with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrat (CDU) Party.

A ZDF public broadcaster poll showed the CDU is at 32 percent and closely followed by SPD with 31 percent.

The SPD and the CDU are the two main parties in the German parliament, known as the Bundestag or House of Representatives.

SPD party leader and candidate for Chancellor Martin Schulz casts his vote with his wife in the western German town of Wuerselen, during North Rhine-Westphalia state elections, May 14, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

Pundits say the SPD needs to win in the NRW if the party’s candidate for chancellery, Martin Schulz, is to pose a serious threat to Angela Merkel in the upcoming national elections scheduled for September 24.

Schulz, 61, who is a former president of the European Parliament, faces an extremely tough competition against Merkel, 62.

An earlier survey conducted by the INSA institute suggested the country’s left-wing political parties could, however, garner enough votes to beat Merkel’s ruling party in the September polls if they joined together.

In the previous electoral race in 2013, the leftist parties had failed to form a coalition and were defeated by Merkel’s CDU party.