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Schleswig Holstein's Prime Minister Torsten Albig casts his vote for the regional state elections in Kiel, Germany, May 7, 2017. REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer


By Oliver Denzer

KIEL, Germany (Reuters) - Germans in the far northern state of Schleswig-Holstein voted in force on Sunday in the first of two regional polls the Social Democrats must win if they are to pose a serious challenge to Chancellor Angela Merkel in September's national election.

The Social Democratic Party (SPD) enjoyed a revival in the opinion polls early this year after nominating former European Parliament president Martin Schulz in January as its candidate to run against Merkel.

But the "Schulz effect" failed to deliver in Saarland, where his party flopped in a March state poll. In Schleswig-Holstein, the SPD is defending an incumbent state premier - Torsten Albig - for the first time since Schulz's nomination as party leader.

"Last night we took a trip through lots of bars," a chipper Albig told reporters after voting in Kiel. "I think I only met undecided voters, and I think there is a lot of potential there."

Albig will need to capture the undecided vote. A survey by pollster Forschungsgruppe Wahlen for national broadcaster ZDF published on Thursday put support for Merkel's CDU at 32 percent in his state, ahead of the SPD on 29 percent.

Jobs and wind farm plans are among the regional issues in Schleswig-Holstein, a region of 2.3 million voters that juts north of Hamburg and borders Denmark.

"If Torsten Albig wins, whatever the coalition constellation, that will show people that the election in September is open," said Hajo Funke, political scientist at Berlin's Free University.

The state election commissioner in Schleswig-Holstein estimated that by 11 a.m. (0900 GMT), 21.55 percent of eligible voters had cast their vote, up from 17.7 percent at the same stage in the last regional vote in 2012.

The SPD's chances of toppling Merkel will be boosted further if they can hold onto power next Sunday in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), a large western region where elections in the past have served as an indicator of the national mood.

However, the left-leaning party has its work cut out.

Two polls on Thursday showed Merkel's conservative bloc extending its lead over the SPD at national level to six and seven percentage points respectively.

Polls suggest a power-sharing "grand coalition" between the SPD and the conservatives could be the sole governing option in Schleswig-Holstein - a scenario that could also arise again at the federal level after the September election.

(Writing by Paul Carrell; Editing by Angus macSwan and Richard Lough)

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