Bavaria election seen as tough test for Merkel's allies

Setback expected for dominant Christian Social Union as far-right and left parties pick up votes over migration.

    Bavaria's State Premier and top candidate of Christian Social Union casts his vote with wife Karin Soeder in Nuremberg [Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images]
    Bavaria's State Premier and top candidate of Christian Social Union casts his vote with wife Karin Soeder in Nuremberg [Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images]

    Polls have opened in the German state of Bavaria where some 9.5 million voters will elect a new regional parliament - a result that could trigger shockwaves in Berlin.

    The state election is expected to deal the prosperous region's long-dominant conservative party a setback, with unpredictable consequences for German Chancellor Angela Merkel's federal government.

    In almost every election since the second world war, the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), part of Merkel's federal alliance, has been Bavaria's largest party.

    But in recent months, it appears to be losing support on both the left and the right, with the Greens picking up liberal-minded voters and the far-right Alternative for Germany party set to win seats.

    Polls suggest the CSU will lose their majority by a wide margin.

    While the CSU is unlikely to lose power altogether, after a 61-year reign, just needing coalition partners to govern would be a humiliating setback.

    In Berlin, the CSU is one of three parties in Merkel's federal coalition government along with its sister, Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, and the centre-left Social Democrats.

    Polls put support for the CSU as low as 33 percent, down from 47.7 percent in 2013. 

    The Greens are running second, with support up to 19 percent, and the Social Democrats could lose nearly half the 20.6 percent they won five years ago.

    Alternative for Germany looks set to win 10 percent or more.

    Al Jazeera's Dominic Kane reporting from Munich said that the seminal issue in the election has been how to manage border control and migration into Bavaria. 

    "Certainly the parties of the right, the centre-right and to a certain extent the populist right have stressed that they believe that migration needs to be better managed, needs to be toughened up, the rules that govern migration into this state and into country need to be overhauled," Kane said.

    "Contrast that with the view of the parties of the centre-left and the left who say that's not the case, that that's not the policy to ... win this election to the state parliament taking place today."

    Internal squabbling

    The alliance has been notable largely for internal squabbling since it took office in March with the CSU leader, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, often playing a starring role.

    A long-running CSU power struggle saw 69-year-old Seehofer give up his job as state governor this year to younger rival, Markus Soeder.

    Soeder wants voters to give the CSU credit for Bavaria's enviable prosperity, with an unemployment rate of just 2.8 percent, and keep it strong to ensure stability. He has blamed goings-on in Berlin for poor poll ratings.

    "Where Germany is good, Bavaria is better," he told a rally on Friday. "It is no coincidence when the results on the economy, security and finances are so clear. A country needs a backbone - in Germany, the backbone is Bavaria, but in Bavaria, the backbone is the Christian Social Union." 

    Regional Green co-leader Katharina Schulze says people are fed up with the politics of "hate and agitation" and "want a policy that gives courage instead of fear".

    Far-right Alternative for Germany, which entered Germany's national parliament only last year, is appealing to voters who want an uncompromising anti-migration, law-and-order stance.

    Seehofer has sparred with Merkel about migration on and off since 2015, when he assailed her decision to leave Germany's borders open as refugees and others crossed the Balkans.

    They argued in June over whether to turn back small numbers of asylum seekers at the Germany-Austria border, briefly threatening to topple the national government.

    "There was an EU summit at a European level [this summer]," Kane said.

    "The CSU's concerns were discussed, and solutions were thrashed out to try to change the way that border control and migration was managed right across the EU. From that perspective at least, what happens here, which government emerges in this state after today's voting, that really could have a profound impact within Berlin and in Brussels." 

    Seehofer also starred in a coalition crisis last month over Germany's domestic intelligence chief, who was accused of downplaying recent far-right violence against migrants.

    There is widespread speculation that a poor performance on Sunday could cost Seehofer his job, though he has insisted he will stay. Soeder, meanwhile, has pivoted from tough talk on migration to trying to project an inclusive image as Bavaria's leader.

    The 64-year-old Merkel, who has led Germany since 2005, has already been weakened by government infighting and the replacement of a close ally as her party's parliamentary leader.

    She will hope that poor state election results do not create new political problems before a CDU party convention in December where her leadership is due for renewal.

    "Of course I hope for a good result for the CSU," she said on Friday. "I know that we don't live in easy times. Otherwise, I'm waiting for the result."

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies