Bavarian Win at Liberals’ Expense Should Alarm Merkel

The German chancellor’s allies did well in the south but at the expense of her liberal coalition partners.

Bavarian prime minister and conservative party leader Horst Seehofer, May 12, 2012
Bavarian prime minister and conservative party leader Horst Seehofer, May 12, 2012 (Techniker Krankenkasse)

German chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative allies in Bavaria won back control of the regional legislature on Sunday but their liberal coalition party’s failure to reenter parliament doesn’t bode well for the right’s electoral chances nationwide.

The Christlich-Soziale Union, a sister party of Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats, won 49 percent support according to projections from ARD and ZDF television. Party leader and Bavarian prime minister Horst Seehofer hailed the outcome as “a great election success” in a speech to supporters in Munich. “With this, the year 2008 is history,” he said.

Five years ago, the Bavarian party scored its worst result in six decades with 43 percent. Seehofer was forced into a coalition with the liberal Free Democrats who are also Merkel’s partners at the national level.

The conservatives have governed Germany’s largest and second most populous state for over half a century. It styles itself as the natural ruler of a region that is proud of its “laptop and lederhosen” economy, mixing innovation and tradition. Home to industrial giants such as Audi, BMW and Siemens, Bavaria has Germany’s lowest unemployment rate. If it were a separate country, it would have the eurozone’s sixth-largest economy.

Bavaria’s conservatives will likely be able to govern without allies again but Merkel’s party as a whole will need a coalition partner after next week’s federal election when it is expected to get some 40 percent of the votes.

If the liberals fail to cross the 5 percent election threshold as they did in the south this weekend, a “grand coalition” between the Christian and Social Democrats is virtually the only alternative. Both parties have all but ruled out such an outcome, however. Merkel insists a continuation of her government with the pro-business Free Democrats is in Germany’s best interest while the Social Democrats care little to repeat an alliance that cost them more than 10 percent support in the last election. Merkel presided over a grand coalition between 2005 and 2009.

The liberals’ weak showing in Bavaria might persuade rightwingers elsewhere to back them instead of Merkel’s own party which could weaken the chancellor — especially if Euroskeptic voters also abandon her in favor of Alternative für Deutschland, a startup that has so far gained little traction in opinion polls but will siphon off votes from the conservatives even if it fails to enter parliament.

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