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Bavarian vote may signal German shift

A political earthquake is possible in a regional election that could weaken Angela Merkel ahead of the general election.

Preparations take place in Munich for the upcoming Bavarian state elections. The ruling CSU is expected to lose its absolute majority.
Preparations take place in Munich for the upcoming Bavarian state elections. The ruling CSU is expected to lose its absolute majority.

MUNICH // A political earthquake is possible in Bavaria on Sunday in a regional election that could weaken Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, ahead of a general election next year. The Christian Social Union party (CSU), an important pillar of Ms Merkel's power, is projected to lose its absolute majority in this prosperous Alpine state for the first time in half a century because of a series of gaffes by its leaders and general fatigue with the party's dominance.

Opinion polls suggest the CSU will fall below 50 per cent in a slump of more than 10 points that would confront Ms Merkel with a tougher re-election battle than expected in September 2009. "It would be a bad omen for Merkel because one can't rule out that such a decline in support could be repeated in the general election," said Heinrich Oberreuter, a political scientist at the University of Passau.

"Angela Merkel is well aware that her own ability to govern depends on the Bavarian conservatives remaining as strong as they have in the past." The CSU is the Bavarian sister party to Ms Merkel's Christian Democrats and its strength helped secure Ms Merkel's slender majority in the 2005 election. A poor result for the CSU on Sunday could topple the CSU's leadership, weaken the party in the 2009 campaign and force it to be more confrontational towards Ms Merkel in coming months in a bid to regain votes.

Ms Merkel's personal approval ratings and the poll results of her party have been riding high over the past three years due to an economic recovery, her strong mediation at European Union and G8 summits, tough talk on Russia and China and her skilful handling of the media. But Ms Merkel's outlook for the year ahead has been clouded by a sharp slowdown in Germany's export-heavy economy. She also faces a stronger challenge from the rival Social Democrats (SPD), with whom she shares power in a coalition, after the centre-left party installed a new leadership earlier this month.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister and deputy chancellor, has been appointed as the SPD's candidate to run against Ms Merkel in 2009, and his nomination will force him to start opposing her in key policy areas to boost his electoral chances. As a result, Ms Merkel's government is expected to grind to a halt for most of next year as the SPD and conservatives try to score points against each other ahead of the autumn vote.

"It's a problem that Merkel and Steinmeier have to work together in the cabinet and oppose each other outside it. I think we'll have a virtual standstill in the government from January or February," said Jürgen Falter, a political scientist at Mainz University. Under Ms Merkel, Germany's unemployment rate has fallen to 7.6 per cent from 11 per cent, but the problems now besetting the Bavarian conservatives are a lesson that a solid economic record alone does not translate into election success.

Ms Merkel herself has called Bavaria a model for the rest of Germany. The region has the lowest jobless rate in the country - 3.9 per cent - and one of the lowest crime rates. Over the last 50 years, CSU governments have transformed the state from a backward agricultural region into a booming hi-tech economy home to blue-chip firms such as BMW and Siemens and a host of software businesses clustered around the regional capital, Munich.

The "Laptop and lederhosen" approach of attracting modern businesses with tax incentives while protecting Bavarian values has been the secret of the CSU's success. Every Bavarian governor since 1957 has been a CSU member and the party is so ubiquitous in regional and local politics, in village social clubs and heritage societies, that it is regarded as synonymous with Bavaria. That makes its current problems all the more astounding. Gunther Beckstein, the Bavarian governor, and Erwin Huber, the CSU party leader, who have been in their jobs for less than a year, have failed so far to mobilise traditional CSU voters, opinion polls show.

Even worse, they lack the charisma to invigorate beer hall crowds, an important aspect of any Bavarian campaign. "The CSU has become the victim of its own success. The party is credited with a good economic record but Bavarians now take their prosperity for granted and the economy isn't a big issue," said Michael Weigl, a political analyst at Munich University. "In Bavarian elections you have to be able to perform in beer tents, and Beckstein and Huber aren't great speakers, they're pale when it comes to big crowds."

Opinion polls show voters are angry at cutbacks in regional government spending and at Bavaria's introduction of a strict smoking ban in public areas. Mr Beckstein's prospects were not helped by his wife, Marga, who refused to wear a traditional dress to last Saturday's opening of the Munich Oktoberfest festival. Her move broke a long-held tradition for Bavarian first ladies and proved so controversial that local media have dubbed it "Dirndl Gate". There is speculation it may cost the party points in Sunday's election.

Mr Beckstein himself scored an own goal when he suggested in a speech last week that it is fine to drink two litres of beer and drive - a statement that drew nationwide condemnation. The latest opinion polls put support for the CSU at around 48 per cent, down from 60.7 per cent at the last election in 2003. With such a result the party would still be able to form a government on its own or with a junior partner, but the extent of the drop in support would be enough to force at least Mr Huber to resign, and would plunge the CSU into turmoil.

Analysts said Ms Merkel might have made a tactical error by rejecting outright a CSU demand for billions of euros in tax cuts. Her refusal deprived the CSU of a major campaign issue, and may backfire. "Merkel should have a big interest in the Bavarian lion remaining able to roar and not getting too weak," Mr Oberreuter said. "She could have sugar-coated her refusal in some way. We all know that it's possible to make a rejection look like you're saying yes."