Merkel faces electoral dilemma in final week

Bavarian voters oust her FDP coalition partners as CSU takes almost 50% of vote

Bavarian state premier and leader of the Christian Social Union Horst Seehofer gestures as he addresses his party members in Munich yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Michael Dalder

Bavarian state premier and leader of the Christian Social Union Horst Seehofer gestures as he addresses his party members in Munich yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Michael Dalder


Allies of Chancellor Angela Merkel have admitted that Germany’s federal election is on a “knife-edge” after their Free Democrat (FDP) coalition partners crashed out of the Bavarian state parliament last night.

The FDP result creates a dilemma for the German leader ahead of next Sunday’s election and cast a pall over yesterday’s state election success of her Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU).

After an uninterrupted run of more than half a century in office, exit polls last night suggested the CSU was heading back into office with an absolute majority and almost 50 per cent of the vote.

Their outgoing FDP coalition partner, meanwhile, lost half of its vote to finish on three per cent – two points shy of the five per cent parliamentary hurdle.

“Every second Bavarian voted for us, we’re deeply rooted in the Bavarian people,” said CSU leader Horst Seehofer, who presides over a comfortable majority of 10 in the new state parliament in Munich. “From now, we will do everything [to ensure] that Angela Merkel remains chancellor.”

With 9 million registered voters – 15 per cent of Germany’s total electorate – yesterday’s Bavarian vote, with a turnout of almost 65 per cent, was seen as a crucial barometer before next Sunday’s federal election.

Up north in Berlin, Merkel allies hurried to play down the turbulence thrown up by the Bavarian result for their own election campaign and Angela Merkel’s hopes for a third term.

Though her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is likely to win Sunday’s election, polls put her FDP partners stuck at or near the five per cent cut-off point for entering the Bundestag. Despite the danger of finishing the election without her coalition partner, the German leader has urged her supporters not to vote strategically for the FDP to preserve her outgoing coalition.

Such a last-minute shift of support to the FDP cost the CDU votes – and power – in Lower Saxony last January.

“The FDP is traditionally weak in Bavaria and often not represented in the state parliament, so we see no effect on the federal vote,” said Armin Laschet, head of the CDU’s influential party in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

However, he admitted that “it’s clear things are on a knife-edge and it will be a lot tighter next week than in Bavaria.”

At the FDP headquarters in Berlin, supporters defied the disastrous result and cheered their leader for the television cameras.

“This result is a wake-up call for all liberals,” said FDP leader Philip Rösler. “We have to stand up, go to events and to convince people that it’s important to vote for freedom.”

In a taste of what’s to come in the final week of campaigning, Mr Rösler warned supporters – and a national television audience – that the most likely alternative to his party’s outgoing coalition with Chancellor Merkel next Sunday was a three-way coalition between the opposition parties: the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and far-left Linke.

The SPD would “blackmail” Merkel with this option, he warned, to secure a grand coalition with her on their terms.

Over at Willy Brandt Haus, SPD headquarters in Berlin, party leaders dismissed the idea of co-operating with the Linke and said yesterday’s vote was proof that voters had “seen through Rösler’s campaign lies”.

Instead, SPD chancellor hopeful Peer Steinbrück pointed out that yesterday’s Bavarian poll was the 13th state election that had ended with voters ousting an alliance of Merkel allies and the FDP.

“There’s a good chance that the same will be the case in a week’s time,” he said.

Despite his defiant optimism, however, last night’s result saw only marginal shifts in support to the SPD and Greens in Bavaria. Things look marginally better at federal level, but polls put them eight points behind the outgoing Merkel alliance of CDU and FDP.

However, with the chancellor’s coalition just shy of a Bundestag majority, and the FDP fighting for survival, next Sunday’s federal election is heading for an uncertain outcome.

“It’s clear that the FDP is weakening, I wouldn’t count on a last-minute rally of support for them,” said Dr Reinhardt Rummel, political analyst at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University. “If anything, there’s a chance that FDP voters will go elsewhere, given how badly things went wrong in Bavaria.”