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Bavarian Voters Punish Merkel Allies in State Election

Bavarian governor Markus Soeder reacts during his first appearance after the first exit polls for the Bavarian state election in Munich, southern Germany, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018.
Bavarian governor Markus Soeder reacts during his first appearance after the first exit polls for the Bavarian state election in Munich, southern Germany, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative allies lost their absolute majority in Bavaria’s state parliament by a wide margin Sunday, according to projections from a regional election that could cause more turbulence in the national government.

The Christian Social Union was on course to take just over 35 percent of the vote, down from 47.7 percent five years ago, projections for ARD and ZDF public television based on exit polls and a partial vote count indicated.

That would be the socially conservative party’s worst performance in Bavaria, which it has traditionally dominated, since 1950. Squabbling in Merkel’s national government and a power struggle at home have weighed in recent months on the CSU, which has taken a hard line on migration tradition.

There were gains for parties to its left and right. The Greens were expected to win up to 19 percent to secure second place, more than double their support in 2013. And the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, was set to enter the state legislature with around 11 percent of the vote.

The center-left Social Democrats, Merkel’s other coalition partner in Berlin, were on course for a disastrous result of 10 percent or less, half of what the party received in 2013 and its worst in the state since World War II.

The CSU has held an absolute majority in the Bavarian parliament for all but five of the past 56 years and governed the prosperous southeastern state for 61 years.

Needing coalition partners to govern would in itself be a major setback for the party, which only exists in Bavaria and has long leveraged its strength there to punch above its weight in national politics.

“Of course this isn’t an easy day for the CSU,” the state’s governor, Markus Soeder, told supporters in Munich, adding that the party accepted the “painful” result “with humility.”

Soeder pointed to goings-on in Berlin and said “it’s not so easy to uncouple yourself from the national trend completely.”

But he stressed that the CSU still emerged Sunday as the state’s strongest party and a mandate to form the next Bavarian government.

He said his preference was for a center-right coalition — which would see the CSU partner with the Free Voters, a local center-right party that was seen winning 11.5 percent, and possibly also the Free Democrats, who may or may not secure the 5 percent needed to win state parliament seats.

The Greens, traditionally bitter opponents, with a more liberal approach to migration and an emphasis on environmental issues, are another possibility.

Bavaria is home to some 13 million of Germany’s 82 million people.

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

That government has been notable largely for internal squabbling since it took office in March. The CSU leader, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, has often played a starring role.

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

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.

Seehofer, who has faced widespread speculation lately that a poor Bavarian result would cost him his job, said he was “saddened” by Sunday’s outcome, but didn’t address his own future.

It remains to be seen whether and how the Bavarian result will affect the national government’s stability or Merkel’s long-term future.

Any 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 on the governor’s office. Bouffier has criticized the CSU for diminishing people’s trust in Germany’s conservatives.

“Clearly the choices of subjects and the debates of recent weeks led to our friends in the CSU being unable to put their successful regional record at the center of their election campaign,” said the CDU’s general secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.