But Bavarian elections on Sunday may see the end of this one party state, with the Christian Social Union (CSU) facing the very real possibility of scoring less than 50 percent of the vote for the first time since the 1960s.
The CSU is the sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling Christian Democrats (CDU), and such a result could damage her chances of re-election in national elections in September 2009, experts believe. “Bavaria needs a strong CSU to succeed,” Merkel said recently. “And the CDU needs a strong CSU.”
Germany's 16 states already run much of their own affairs but Bavaria is a case apart, with a proud history going back to the sixth century, rich in traditions and home to innumerable picture-postcard towns, castles and landscapes.
The same size as Ireland, but with an economic output much larger, a third of Germany's 30 blue chip Dax companies—as well as 48 percent of the country's breweries—call the “Free State of Bavaria” home, with full employment in many areas and a cosy standard of living. Foreign firms have fallen over themselves to join global titans like Siemens and Adidas in Bavaria and put down roots there, taking advantage of its well educated workforce, cutting edge technological know-how and excellent infrastructure.
And since before the Beatles hit the big time, the CSU has presided over this success story, holding an absolute majority in the state parliament ever since 1962 - a dominance that experts say is unique in postwar Western Europe. In the last elections the 12.5-million strong state five years ago, the CSU scored 60.7 percent of the vote, giving it two-thirds of the 180 seats. The Social Democrats (SPD) came a very distant second with 19.6 percent. Now though the CSU is in trouble, with recent opinion polls indicating its score will fall to under 50 percent. It will still run Bavaria, but it will have to form a coalition and take into account another party's point of view - a situation no one in the CSU has experience with. The reasons for this fall from grace are many and complex, analysts say. For one thing, recent policy debacles over issues such as education, a smoking ban and the scrapping of a multi-billion euro maglev train link have given the CSU a reputation of clumsiness and has given rise to a feeling that change is needed.
Another is the current CSU leadership. Just under a year ago the CSU's long-standing premier and party chairman, the failed chancellor candidate Edmund Stoiber, threw in the towel and was replaced by two men - Guenther Beckstein as state premier and Erwin Huber as party chairman. Neither is particularly popular. Beckstein , from the Protestant north of 70 percent Catholic Bavaria, often puts his foot in it, most recently with his suggestion that driving after two litres of strong Oktoberfest beer was acceptable.
Beckstein is “not elegant when it comes to communication,” and he and Huber “don't have the charismatic faces needed for today's television democracy,” political scientist Heinrich Oberreuter told AFP. Both could find themselves out of a job come Monday morning. But other factors go deeper. As Bavaria has modernised, its society has changed and the CSU has lost touch, abandoned on the one hand by young people more interested in the Internet than going to church and shunned on the other by people angry at the environmental damage that modernisation has done. Bavaria is also now home to over a million foreigners not necessarily that taken with the CSU's love of Bavarian sausages and lederhosen. “The CSU brought Bavaria into the modern age but now the modern age is hitting back,” the Sueedeutsche Zeitung daily said this week. “Is Bavaria becoming German?” weekly Die Zeit asked. And the repercussions of a poor result for the CSU will have national implications.
At the very least, it would make cooperation in Merkel's “grand coalition” with the centre-left SPD even more difficult and slow down reforms in Europe's biggest economy.
“Failure by the CSU would change the power structure at the federal level,” said Manuela Glaab, political analyst at Munich university. “To defend Bavaria's interests in Berlin, a weakened CSU might try and compensate by becoming more aggressive,” she said, causing “friction within the coalition.”