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Politics

Bavaria result poses dilemma for Merkel

The Bavarian regional elections have provided the ruling Christian Social Union with an absolute majority. But the defeat of the Free Democratic Party could be more detrimental to Chancellor Merkel's election success.

There were hardly any surprises. The poll projections had already said it all. And by the end of an uneventful election night on September 15, everything is now back to normal in Bavaria. In 2008, voters unusually elected the Free Democratic Party (FDP) as the Christian Social Union's (CSU) coalition partner, but the CSU has managed to iron out that historical slip-up.

The CSU, the Bavarian sister party of current Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has its absolute majority back in Bavaria. The clear failure of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) was hardly unexpected. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) has picked up some votes in comparison to 2008, but not enough to give the party hopes of a victory for the SPD and its candidate for chancellor Peer Steinbrück this coming Sunday, when German federal elections will take place.

No voter apathy in sight

On second glance, not everything in the Bavarian election went exactly as expected. Fears of a low voter turnout were dispelled. Voter participation was at 65 percent, seven percent higher than five years ago. The CSU benefitted the most from this high turnout, which is all the more remarkable since the party was able to mobilize its voters despite already being in power - an uncommon feat. Usually ruling parties have trouble mobilizing their own voters during election campaigns.

The CSU's election success was particularly detrimental to the party's current coalition party, the FDP. Votes that were tactically given to the Free Democratic Party five years ago strengthened the CSU this time around. The CSU's clear win showed that Bavarians want a single party to rule, rather than a coalition.

Who's afraid of the AfD?

All the smaller parties won fewer votes in these regional elections than five years ago. Only the Christian Social Union and the Social Democratic Party made gains, though the CSU's were far more significant. However, the results of the Bavarian election can hardly predict the outcome of the German federal elections on September 22. One of the reasons for that is that the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a euro-skeptic party founded in early 2013, didn't compete in the Bavarian elections.

But the AfD will be taking part in the federal elections and is hoping to siphon off votes from Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Not all CDU/CSU voters are happy with Merkel's EU policies and her management of the EU debt crisis. So the question being asked in the CDU's headquarters is how many CDU votes the AfD will get.

Pity for the FDP

FDP party leader Philipp Roesler and the top candidate of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) Rainer Brüderle leave the stage after addressing party members and media on first results of Bavarian State elections in Berlin on September 15, 2013. (Photo: Reuters / Tobias Schwarz)

Party head Philipp Rösler, left, and top candidate Brüderle have cause for concern

The FDP's results will have even more of a consequence for Angela Merkel in Sunday's elections. The party received a meager three percent of votes in Bavaria, leaving it below the five percent needed to enter the regional parliament, which means that the party could still tip the scales among middle-class voters. The majority of experts think that many CDU/CSU supporters will now vote for the FDP out of pity, which is why the Bavarian election results prove to be a threat to the chancellor's party.

The CDU doesn't officially want to give any votes away to its current coalition partner, the FDP, as CDU General Secretary Hermann Gröhe stated clearly after the Bavarian regional elections on Sunday. In Germany, voters cast two votes: one for a direct candidate, the other for a party. Past experience shows that the CDU's party leadership might refuse to encourage voters to give their second vote to another party, but the party's voters might ignore orders from above in order to keep their party in power.

Parties in Germany must have over 50 percent of parliamentary seats in order to rule, a percentage they can often only reach by forming a coalition. There has been speculation that the CDU might encourage voters to give their second vote to the FDP in order to ensure the party makes it into parliament, so they can serve as the CDU's coalition partner. Other coalition partners don't currently seem to be on the cards for the CDU. If the Free Democratic Party fails to make it past the five percent threshold on a national scale on September 22, that failure could signal the end of Merkel's rule.

The SPD candidate for chancellor Peer Steinbrück on the cover of the Süddeutsche Zeitung magazine.
(Photo: Alfred Steffen / SZ-Magazin / dpa)

Pointing the finger: Peer Steinbrück on the cover of the Süddeutsche Zeitung magazine

Initial reactions show that the FDP has a lot to lose. In a statement, party head Philipp Rösler took just over a minute to evaluate what was a disastrous outcome for his party in the Bavarian election. He quickly moved on from the situation in Bavaria. With unmistakable pathos, Rösler said that "from now on, it's about Germany." FDP supporters were told: "Now more than ever!"

SPD gains ground in Bavaria

The Social Democratic Party isn't feeling quite as existential. Even a few percentage points gained in a traditionally conservative Bavaria are a success for the SPD. Angela Merkel is still far ahead of her SPD challenger Peer Steinbrück, but the latter is slowly catching up. He hopes to be even more confident in the last few days before the election. The recent scandal surrounding a picture of the candidate flipping the bird on the cover of a German magazine hasn't noticeably damaged his reputation so far.

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