German conservatives suffer worst election result in 50 years


German conservatives in the southern state of Bavaria suffered their worst result in half a century in a regional vote today, dealing a blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel ahead of a 2009 federal election.

The Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Ms Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), saw its support slide to 43 per cent, according exit polls from German public television.

The result, the party's worst since 1954, means the CSU will lose the absolute majority it has held in the state assembly for nearly half a century, and in a humiliating setback, be forced to form a ruling coalition with another party.

The sharp fall in support, down from the CSU's score of 60.7 per cent in the last Bavarian vote in 2003, means Ms Merkel, who relies on the CSU for power, will face a tougher battle than she may have expected to win a second term in a September 2009 election.

"This clearly weakens Merkel because her CDU always depends on the strength of the CSU in Bavaria," said Gerd Langguth, a political scientist at Bonn University and biographer of Ms Merkel.

The CSU accounts for more than 20 percent of the conservative block in Germany's lower house of parliament and the Bavarian party's strength helped Ms Merkel win her slim majority in the last federal vote in 2005.

The exit polls put the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), with whom Ms Merkel rules in an uneasy "grand coalition" in Berlin, on 19 per cent, slightly weaker than their 2003 showing.

The liberal Free Democrats (FDP) were on 8.4 per cent, the Free Voters on 10.2 per cent and the Greens on 9.2 per cent.

After a string of victories in other western states earlier this year, exit polls showed the far-left Left party on 4.7 per cent in Bavaria, short of the 5 percent threshold needed to make it into the state parliament.

The result is a political earthquake in the prosperous southern state known for its annual Oktoberfest beer festival. The CSU has ruled Bavaria alone for nearly half a century and won over 50 per cent of every vote since 1970.

"This is a black day for the CSU," CSU General Secretary Christine Haderthauer told reporters at the state parliament in Munich. "We have sustained painful losses if these forecasts are correct."

The election setback could force CSU leader Erwin Huber and possibly Bavarian premier Guenther Beckstein to quit. The duo took over a year ago from Edmund Stoiber who had run the state since 1993 and the party since 1999.