German Conservatives in Trouble A Political Monopoly Ends in Bavaria

The conservative Christian Social Union turned in its worst election result since 1954 in Bavarian state elections on Sunday. The ballot box collapse brings a decades-long political monopoly to an end -- and may call Chancellor Angela Merkel's re-election into question.

In the run up to Sunday's state parliamentary elections in Bavaria, it was clear that the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), the party which has dominated the state's political leadership almost since World War II, was in trouble. Nobody, though, expected the result to be quite as bad as it turned out.

The CSU, the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), ended up with just 43.4 percent of the vote. It was the party's worst result since 1954 and fully 17.3 percentage points lower than its vote total in the last state elections five years ago. Even worse, the ballot-box flop could indicate that Merkel's re-election next autumn might not be the foregone conclusion many have taken it to be.

"We were caught totally unprepared," said Erwin Huber, head of the CSU, on Sunday evening on Bavarian television. "It has been a black and painful day." Günther Beckstein, the CSU governor of Bavaria, said that "none of us expected that we would lose 17 percent."

The vote also marks the first time since 1962 that the CSU has not won an absolute majority in Bavaria, meaning that Beckstein will now have to begin the search for a coalition partner. And he's got a number of parties to choose from. The pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) made large gains over its 2003 result to finish with 8.0 percent of the vote, the Greens ended up with an impressive 9.4 percent, and the conservative protest group Freie Wähler (free voters) came out of nowhere to get 10.2 percent. The far-left Left Party grabbed 4.7 percent of the votes, but did not manage to clear the 5 percent hurdle necessary to send representatives to the state parliament.

Indeed, the only party that didn't benefit from the collapse of the CSU was the hapless Social Democrats. The party has fallen on hard times across Germany, and on Sunday in Bavaria it garnered only 18.6 percent of the vote, the SPD's worst result in Bavaria since 1945 and one percentage point lower than its disastrous showing in 2003.

Beckstein has made it clear that the only party he is unwilling to consider as a coalition partner is the Green Party, but most observers say that a match-up with the FDP is the most likely outcome. The SPD has raised the possibility of creating a so-called "rainbow coalition" made up of the SPD, the FDP, the Freie Wähler and the Greens, but that seems unlikely given the FDP's stated opposition to such a combination.

Given the dimensions of the election-day disaster, however, the CSU leadership itself is also up for discussion. A number of party honchos have begun questioning whether Huber will be allowed to remain in his position as leader of the party. Horst Seehofer, a minister in Merkel's cabinet, likewise said that "changes will have to be made." One leading CSU member even raised the possibility that Seehofer could take over as both CSU party head and as Bavarian governor.

Of more concern for Merkel's conservatives, however, is what implications the CSU collapse might have for nationwide elections a year from now. Even as the Social Democrats have experienced one of their most difficult years in the 125-year history of the party, Germany's conservatives have not benefited as much as one might expect. In 2005, Merkel's victory was razor thin -- and she would have found herself on the outside looking in without the almost 50 percent result achieved by the CSU in Bavaria.

It is difficult to imagine the SPD coming back far enough to effectively challenge a still popular Chancellor Merkel. But a number of smaller parties -- including the FDP, the Greens and especially the Left Party -- have managed to wrest voters away from both the SPD and the CDU. In Bavaria, the rise of the Freie Wähler seems symptomatic of an electorate frustrated with the two parties that have dominated German politics since World War II.

In Bavaria, the most immediate reason for that frustration can be found in the last two years of chaos within the CSU. Long-time Bavarian governor and ex-party head Edmund Stoiber stepped down last year following an uprising from the party's grassroots. Many of the party's younger members had grown increasingly tired of his controlling leadership style.

Stoiber left Germany for Brussels, where he is now battling bureaucracy in the European Union, but the leadership tandem of Beckstein and Huber has hardly fared better than its predecessor. The significant troubles run into by the Bavarian state bank BayernLB  combined with the state's failure to secure funding for the high-profile magnetic-levitation  project linking the Munich airport to the city's train station led many to question the CSU leadership.

cgh -- with wire reports

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