Merkel’s conservative allies humbled in Bavarian state poll

Exit polls show Christian Social Union bleeding votes to Greens and far-right

German chancellor Angela Merkel’s Bavarian allies suffered their worst election result since 1950 on Sunday, exit polls suggest.

The Christian Social Union (CSU) won 35.5 per cent of the vote, an exit poll for broadcaster ARD showed, losing its absolute majority for only the second time since 1962 – an outcome sure to stoke infighting in the conservative party, already a difficult partner for Dr Merkel in Berlin.

“Of course today is not an easy day for the CSU. We did not achieve a good result,” Bavarian premier Markus Söder told a gathering of his party. “We accept the result with humility,” he said, adding that the CSU nonetheless wanted to form a stable government as soon as possible.

The result, which saw the pro-immigration Greens come second and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) enter the state assembly for the first time, means the CSU will need to form a coalition – a humiliation for a party used to ruling alone.

The Greens, who more than doubled their share of the vote to 18.5 per cent, attracted support from more liberal CSU voters and from those who traditionally vote for the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD), who won just 10 per cent.

CSU leader Horst Seehofer has been a thorn in Dr Merkel's side since her 2015 decision to open Germany's borders to more than 1 million migrants, gradually shifting his party to the right in an ultimately futile effort to counter the rise of the AfD.

Michael Weigl, political scientist at the University of Passau, said personal attacks on Dr Merkel by Mr Seehofer – who is the federal interior minister – and his hard-line rhetoric against asylum seekers were to blame for the CSU’s weak result.

“This created a political climate of polarisation from which the Greens and the AfD benefited the most, with their clear stances on immigration,” Mr Weigl said. “For the CSU, this strategy backfired. I expect that Seehofer will have to step down as interior minister.”

The AfD won 11 per cent of the vote, the exit poll showed. The Free Voters, a protest party that is the CSU’s most likely coalition party, won 11.5 per cent. The CSU has ruled out an alliance with the AfD.

Divisions between Dr Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and the CSU – conservative sister parties – have widened further since an inconclusive national election forced them into a coalition in March with the Social Democrats.

Another test

The Bavarian election is followed in two weeks by another test for Dr Merkel’s conservative alliance: her CDU is likely to remain the largest party but lose votes in the western state of Hesse, home to the financial centre of Frankfurt.

The CDU then holds its annual congress in December, when Dr Merkel will seek re-election as party chairwoman – a bid senior conservatives have backed despite the parliamentary party ousting her ally, Volker Kauder, as leader last month.

Before the Bavarian vote, Dr Merkel urged her CDU and CSU allies to end their infighting.

Her fourth and probably final government has already come close to collapsing twice, in arguments over immigration and a scandal over Germany’s former domestic spymaster, while a simmering row over phasing out polluting diesel cars now threatens to boil over.

Mr Weigl described the Social Democrats’ result in Bavaria as an “absolute catastrophe” and said this meant tensions in Dr Merkel’s government in Berlin could increase further.

“SPD leader Andrea Nahles will now feel the heat from critics from the left-wing who warned against entering another grand coalition with Merkel’s conservatives,” he said. “The SPD could become a less predictable, less comfortable coalition partner.” – Reuters