Germany's Bavarians vote with Merkel looking for momentum

AFP , Sunday 15 Sep 2013

Ahead of the vote, Merkel toured the state's world-famous beer tents, favoured venues for Bavarian campaign rallies, to bolster the conservatives' chances

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, waves next to governor of Bavaria and top candidate of the CSU Horst Seehofer, right, during an election campaign of the Christian Democratic Party, CDU, and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, CSU, in Miesbach, Germany, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013 (Photo: AP)

Voters in Bavaria went to the polls Sunday with Chancellor Angela Merkel hoping her conservatives in the southern state will create momentum ahead of Germany's general elections in a week.

Polls opened at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) with the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, tipped to prevail.

The CSU has ruled Bavaria uninterrupted for 56 years with a winning strategy of "laptops and lederhosen" -- high-tech business savvy coupled with proud tradition.

Led by outspoken state premier Horst Seehofer, the CSU is well-placed to recapture the absolute majority in the regional parliament that it lost in 2008.

That would allow it to drop its state coalition partners, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), and govern alone.

Most importantly, it could give Merkel a boost as she heads into the final week campaigning for a third term at the helm of Europe's top economic power.

"In light of their brilliant poll ratings, should Seehofer and his team fail to clinch an absolute majority, it would be seen as a defeat," the Bavarian-based national daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung said.

"Instead of a lift for the federal coalition, it would be a drag on it."

Some 9.5 million are eligible to vote in the wealthy, predominantly Catholic southern region that is home to German industrial giants such as BMW, Audi and Siemens.

Polling stations were to close at 1600 GMT with preliminary results expected a few minutes later.

Ahead of the vote, Merkel toured the state's world-famous beer tents, favoured venues for Bavarian campaign rallies, to bolster the conservatives' chances.

Seehofer has warned against too much swagger ahead of the election given the high stakes.

"I advise everyone in my party not to get too cocky and to fight hard down to the wire," he told the local daily Augsburger Allgemeine.

"There can be no order to stand down."

Bavaria is a regional powerhouse in a country that has gone from strength to strength as the eurozone debt crisis ravaged its neighbours.

State unemployment is just 3.8 percent versus 6.8 percent at the national level and the CSU forecasts statistical full employment by 2018, giving Bavarian voters little appetite for change.

It shares that sentiment with much of the rest of the German electorate.

While the main question for the conservatives is how big they will win, the kingmaker FDP -- also Merkel's junior partner at the national level -- is struggling to clear the five-percent hurdle for seats in the Bavarian parliament.

"It will be extremely tight for the FDP," said political scientist Michael Weigl at the University of Munich, the state capital.

"Bavaria has always been tough terrain for the party so it is highly dependent on the national trend and that is looking a bit better."

National polls give Merkel's conservatives around a 14-point lead over the main opposition Social Democrats (SPD).

But they are seen as having virtually no chance at power in Bavaria with a 28-point poll deficit despite the popularity of their candidate, Munich Mayor Christian Ude.

But if Germany's current centre-right government fails to clinch a majority in the general elections, the SPD could be called to form a left-right "grand coalition" under Merkel -- the same alliance she led during her first, 2005-09 term.

Beyond its role in Bavaria, the CSU is also the third member of Merkel's ruling coalition in Berlin.

Analysts say a strong win in Bavaria followed by a robust turnout for the national vote could increase its clout in a reloaded Merkel government, leading it to push more of its pet projects such as introducing roadway tolls.

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