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German conservatives under pressure after CSU poll debacle

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German conservatives under pressure after CSU poll debacle
A vandalized election poster of Bavarian premier Günther Beckstein. Photo: DPA
08:46 CEST+02:00
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives licked their wounds on Monday after historic losses in a Bavarian state election, as German voters continued to abandon major parties a year ahead of the national poll.

Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU), sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democrats, saw the absolute majority it had held in the wealthy southern state for 46 years slip away in Sunday’s ballot, in a debacle with serious consequences at the federal level.

The Munich-based daily Süddeutsche Zeitung called the conservatives’ drubbing “an unparalleled humiliation” Monday after the party plummeted 18 points to land at 43.4 percent, according to preliminary official results.

But the Social Democrats, partners in Merkel’s “grand coalition” government, were unable to capitalise on the conservatives’ misery and slipped half a point to 18.6 percent. The party had banked on its selection this month of popular Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier as its challenger to Merkel in the September 2009 national election and the choice of the folksy Franz Muentefering as its new party leader to give it some traction.

“This is not a poll result, it is an earthquake set off by the election,” Steinmeier said, savouring the conservatives’ losses.

The left-leaning Berlin daily Tageszeitung acknowledged it had seemed unthinkable not long ago that the CSU would lose its absolute majority. “But there are structural phenomena that have implications north of the veal-sausage equator,” it said referring to a Bavarian delicacy. “The new leadership duo of Steinmeier and Muentefering seems to have convinced no one there. That is a disaster for the Social Democrats.”

Merkel’s conservatives bested the Social Democrats by just a bit more than a percentage point in 2005, meaning that neither party was strong enough to form a ruling coalition with its preferred kingmaker. The result was an unwieldy left-right alliance, now in its third year. And the growing strength of smaller parties means that the trend could carry on into the coming election year.

The environmentalist Greens, the pro-business Free Democrats and the grassroots Free Voters parties all made gains in Bavaria. And The Left, Germany’s fastest growing party, scored 4.4 percent in the traditionally conservative, largely Catholic state. That fell just short of the five-percent mark required for representation. But it underlined the dilemma facing Germany’s Volksparteien, as the major parties are known.

The Handelsblatt business daily said the small parties’ triumph meant the conservatives could no longer hope to compensate for weak results in the north with loyal voter turnout in the south.

“The consequences of the vote are serious damage for the CSU, a shock for the Union (conservatives) and a new jumping-off point for the national election next year,” it said in an editorial Monday. “Now the Union has got to show whether the crash in Bavaria pulls it out of its reverie or whether it will continue to doze.”

The Berlin daily Tagesspiegel said the conservatives had managed over the past four decades to transform Bavaria from a “backward farming state” into a modern economic powerhouse, home to industrial giants such as BMW and Siemens. But it said they had paid the price for arrogance and a recent string of failed infrastructure projects, showing their time for absolute power was up.

“The voters reacted like children who have grown up and are thankful to their parents for a good education but who finally want to stand on their own two feet,” the centre-left paper said.

Political scientist Philippe Daum at Munich University noted that the major parties' cooperation in Berlin had forced them to paper over their differences, blurring their profile.

"The power of the major parties to draw voters in is slipping, formerly loyal voters are turning their backs in frustration and swing voters and non-voters are becoming more numerous," he said. "More and more, the big parties are going to have to rely on ad-hoc voters."

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