Merkel's conservatives triumph in Bavarian vote

By Geir Moulson

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Sept. 15 2013 11:58 a.m. MDT

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures during an election campaign event of the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Bad Koestritz, central Germany, on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013. Merkel, the leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) and top candidate will be challenged by Social Democratic Party (SPD ) top candidate Peer Steinbrueck in Germany's general elections on Sept. 22, 2013.

Jens Meyer, Associated Press

BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative allies triumphed in Bavaria's state election Sunday, though her partners in government suffered a painful setback just a week before Germany's national vote, projections showed.

The Merkel-allied Christian Social Union, traditionally the dominant force in the prosperous southern region, won 49 percent support — and so won back a majority in the state legislature that it humiliatingly lost in 2008, according to ARD and ZDF television projections based on exit polls and early vote counting.

However, the projections showed only 3 percent support for Merkel's national governing partners, the pro-market Free Democrats, meaning they would lose their seats. That's a concern for Merkel ahead of next Sunday's national election.

Germany's main opposition party, the Social Democrats of Merkel challenger Peer Steinbrueck, finished a distant second with about 21 percent. That was a couple of percentage points better than the post-World War II low they hit five years ago, but too little to give them any hope of unseating the conservatives or significant national momentum.

And their allies, the Greens, lost ground to score a disappointing 8.5 percent.

"This is a great election success," Bavarian Gov. Horst Seehofer, the CSU leader, told supporters in Munich. "With this, the year 2008 is history. ... We're back."

In Berlin, a somber Vice Chancellor Philipp Roesler, the Free Democrats' leader, sought to rally his party — which governed Bavaria with Seehofer for the past five years. It's also weak in national polls, hovering around the 5 percent needed to keep its seats in the national Parliament.

"We all know that things are different in Bavaria — and from now on, it's all about Germany," Roesler said. "And this result is a wake-up call."

Challenger Steinbrueck's Social Democrats pointed to the positive; noting that it was the only opposition party to make gains. Party chairman Sigmar Gabriel said that "it was a state election in Bavaria, not a national election."

Merkel, who is favored to win a third four-year term next Sunday, has benefited from Germany's strong economy and low unemployment.

That's even truer in Bavaria, the tradition-minded homeland of retired Pope Benedict XVI and also a high-tech and industrial center, where nearly 9.5 million people were eligible to vote. Its jobless rate is just 3.8 percent, the lowest of any German state and well below the national average of 6.8 percent.

Still, the Free Democrats' weakness is a concern for Merkel. Sunday's outcome opens up the possibility of Merkel supporters switching their support to the smaller party to ensure that it tops 5 percent in the national election — which could weaken her conservatives.

"Those who want Angela Merkel must vote for Angela Merkel," Armin Laschet, a deputy leader of the chancellor's Christian Democratic Union, told ARD television. The Free Democrats "will make it," he added.

The smaller party has been a fixture in post-World War II Germany's national Parliament but isn't traditionally strong in Bavaria.

National polls show Merkel's conservative bloc of her Christian Democratic Union and the Bavaria-only CSU leading the pack — though not by the margins the CSU enjoys in Bavaria.

However, they show her current center-right coalition roughly level with the combined opposition, with a lead of up to about 10 points over Steinbrueck's hoped-for alliance of his Social Democrats and the Greens. That suggests she may need a new coalition partner.

In Bavaria, the projections showed a center-right party that's strong locally but not nationally, the Free Voters, taking about 8.5 percent of the vote. A new anti-euro party that's running in the national election, Alternative for Germany, didn't field candidates on Sunday.

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