Bavarian State Governor Markus Soeder arrives for a election campaign in Munich, Germany, Friday, Oct. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Bavaria votes in tough test for Merkel's conservative allies

October 14, 2018 - 1:11 am

BERLIN (AP) — Bavarians were voting Sunday in a state election that was expected to deal the prosperous region's long-dominant conservative party a stinging setback, with unpredictable consequences for German Chancellor Angela Merkel's federal government.

Some 9.5 million people are eligible to vote for the state legislature in Munich, where the Christian Social Union — an important but often-awkward Merkel ally — has held an absolute majority for all but five of the past 56 years.

Polls suggest it will lose that majority by a wide margin.

The CSU, which has taken a hard line against migration and has a socially conservative tradition, appears to be losing support on both the left and the right, with the Greens picking up liberal-minded voters and the far-right Alternative for Germany party set to win seats.

While the CSU is unlikely to lose power altogether after a 61-year reign, just needing coalition partners to govern would be a humiliating setback.

In Berlin, the CSU is one of three parties in Merkel's federal coalition government along with its sister, Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, and the center-left Social Democrats.

That alliance has been notable largely for internal squabbling since it took office in March — with the CSU leader, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, often playing a starring role. The parties are sagging in national polls, and the Social Democrats also appear set to lose significant ground Sunday.

Back in Bavaria, a long-running CSU power struggle saw the 69-year-old Seehofer give up his job as state governor this year to younger rival Markus Soeder.

Soeder wants voters to give the CSU credit for Bavaria's enviable prosperity, with an unemployment rate of just 2.8 percent, and keep it strong to ensure stability. He has blamed goings-on in Berlin for poor poll ratings.

"Where Germany is good, Bavaria is better," he told a rally Friday. "It is no coincidence when the results on the economy, security and finances are so clear. A country needs a backbone — in Germany, the backbone is Bavaria, but in Bavaria the backbone is the Christian Social Union."

Regional Green co-leader Katharina Schulze says people are fed up with the politics of "hate and agitation" and "want a policy that gives courage instead of fear."

And the far-right Alternative for Germany, which entered Germany's national parliament only last year, is appealing to voters who want an uncompromising anti-migration, law-and-order stance.

Seehofer has sparred with Merkel about migration on and off since 2015, when he assailed her decision to leave Germany's borders open as refugees and others crossed the Balkans. They argued in June over whether to turn back small numbers of asylum-seekers at the German-Austrian border, briefly threatening to bring down the national government.

Seehofer also starred in a coalition crisis last month over Germany's domestic intelligence chief, who was accused of downplaying recent far-right violence against migrants.

There is widespread speculation that a poor performance Sunday could cost Seehofer his job, though he has insisted he will stay. Soeder, meanwhile, has pivoted from tough talk on migration to trying to project an inclusive image as Bavaria's leader.

Polls put support for the CSU as low as 33 percent, down from 47.7 percent in 2013. Alternative for Germany looks set to win 10 percent or more.

The Greens are running second, with support up to 19 percent, and the Social Democrats could lose nearly half the 20.6 percent they won five years ago.

Such results would likely leave the CSU seeking a coalition with the Greens, their often-bitter opponents, or an alliance with the pro-business Free Democrats and center-right Free Voters. A four-way alliance without the CSU might be mathematically possible, but impractical.

It's not yet clear whether the Bavarian vote will affect the national government's stability — or Merkel's long-term future. Its aftershocks may be delayed, because another state election is coming Oct. 28 in neighboring Hesse, where conservative Volker Bouffier is defending the 19-year hold of Merkel's CDU party on the governor's office.

The 64-year-old Merkel, who has led Germany since 2005, has already been weakened by government infighting and the ouster of a close ally as her party's parliamentary leader. She will hope that poor state election results don't create new political problems before a CDU party convention in December where her leadership is due for renewal.

"Of course I hope for a good result for the CSU," she said Friday. "I know that we don't live in easy times. Otherwise, I'm waiting for the result."

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