Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative allies triumphed in Bavaria's state election Sunday, according to projections, though her partners in government suffered a painful setback just a week before Germany's national vote.
The Merkel-allied Christian Social Union, traditionally the dominant force in the prosperous southern region, won support of roughly 49 percent, according to ARD and ZDF television projections based on exit polls and early vote counting. That meant it gained more than 5 percentage points and won back a majority in the state legislature it humiliatingly lost in 2008.
"This election gives us tailwind for the national election," said Hermann Groehe, the general secretary of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. But, he warned, "it is of course clear that the national election hasn't yet been decided."
The projections showed only 3 percent support in Sunday's vote for Merkel's national governing partners, the pro-market Free Democrats, meaning they would lose their seats in the legislature in Munich. That's a concern for Merkel ahead of next Sunday's national election, in which she's favored to win a third term.
Germany's main opposition party, the Social Democrats of Merkel challenger Peer Steinbrueck, finished a distant second in Bavaria with a little under 21 percent. That was a couple of percentage points better than the post-World War II low they hit five years ago, but too little to give them any hope of unseating the conservatives or much national momentum.
And their allies, the Greens, lost ground to score a disappointing 8.5 percent.
"This is a great election success," Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer, the CSU leader, told supporters in Munich. The CSU has led Bavaria since 1957, most of that time with an absolute majority.
"With this, the year 2008 is history," Seehofer said. "We're back."
In Berlin, a somber Vice Chancellor Philipp Roesler, the Free Democrats' leader, sought to rally his party — which governed Bavaria with Seehofer for the past five years. It's also weak in national polls, hovering around the 5 percent needed to keep its seats in the national Parliament.
"We all know that things are different in Bavaria — and from now on, it's all about Germany," Roesler said. "And this result is a wake-up call."
Challenger Steinbrueck's Social Democrats pointed to the positive, pointing to their modest gains in a state where they usually struggle and vowing to step up their own national campaign.
Steinbrueck said Sunday's election added to a string of votes in which voters have failed to endorse a conservative-Free Democrat coalition — "and prospects are good for that being the case at federal level in a week's time."
Merkel, who has campaigned hard against her center-left opponents' plans for tax increases, has benefited in the national campaign from Germany's strong economy and low unemployment.
That's even truer of Bavaria, the tradition-minded homeland of retired Pope Benedict XVI and also a high-tech and industrial center, where nearly 9.5 million people were eligible to vote. Its jobless rate is just 3.8 percent, the lowest of any German state and well below the national average of 6.8 percent.
Still, the Free Democrats' weakness may be a problem for Merkel. Sunday's outcome opens up the possibility of Merkel supporters switching their support to the smaller party to ensure it tops 5 percent in the national election, which could weaken her conservatives.
"Those who want Angela Merkel must vote for Angela Merkel," Armin Laschet, a deputy leader of the chancellor's party, told ARD television. The Free Democrats "will make it," he added.
The smaller party has been a fixture in post-World War II Germany's national Parliament but isn't traditionally strong in Bavaria.
National polls show Merkel's conservative bloc of her CDU and the Bavaria-only CSU leading the pack — though not by the margins the CSU enjoys in Bavaria.
However, they show her current center-right coalition roughly level with the combined opposition, and leading by about 10 points Steinbrueck's hoped-for alliance of his Social Democrats and the Greens.
That suggests she may need to form a new coalition, perhaps a "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats — the combination in which she ran Germany from 2005-9.
In Bavaria, the projections showed a center-right party that's strong locally but not nationally, the Free Voters, taking about 8.5 percent of the vote. A new anti-euro party that's running in the national election, Alternative for Germany, didn't field candidates on Sunday.
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