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Bavaria prepares for state election a week ahead of Germany

Some 9.5 million Bavarians are eligible to vote on Sunday in state elections taking place just a week before a national vote in Germany. The state's conservatives could deliver Merkel a big win ahead of the main event.

The Bavarian arm of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives, the Christian Social Union (CSU), will seek to regain solo control of the state government on Sunday.

The CSU enjoys such dominance in Bavaria that its 43.4 percent yield in the 2008 state elections - more than 20 percent clear of any other party - was considered disappointing. It prevented the CSU from governing Bavaria by itself without a coalition partner, a situation that's virtually unheard of in other states but is commonplace in the economic powerhouse in the south.

Although polls suggested the CSU could win as many as 100 seats in the 180-seat chamber, State Premier Horst Seehofer said he was not banking on a return to an absolute majority. In an interview with the Bayerischer Rundfunk radio station, Seehofer called a CSU walkover "the least likely of all possibilities."

The Social Democrat with the unenviable task of challenging Seehofer, Christian Ude, said he thought the pre-vote polls flattered his opponents.

"I have the impression that the population has just started to get interested in the state election," Ude said. With the Social Democrats polling below the 20-percent mark - almost 30 points adrift of the CSU - the mayor of Munich would surely welcome his own prediction coming to pass.

Though technically independent, the CSU and the Christian Democrats act as a team, with the CSU active only in Bavaria and the Christian Democrats operating everywhere else in Germany.

Free Democrats on the ropes

The main national candidates, Merkel and her challenger Peer Steinbrück, have both made frequent visits to Bavaria on the campaign trail owing at least in part to the timing of the state election.

As in the national race, Merkel might have at least half an eye on her junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP). The FDP, also junior partners in Bavaria, is polling around or below the 5-percent mark required to guarantee parliamentary representation. The Free Democrats are flirting with this threshold on a national level as well, and opinion polls currently suggest that should they fail to hit 5 percent in the September 22 vote, then Merkel would need to find new allies to set up a government.

Despite the dire predictions from the pollsters, senior Bavarian Free Democrat Thomas Hacker said he was confident of a "respectable result." The party had set itself a target of 8 percent, and Hacker said he believed this figure was "likely near the lower limit."

Like the FDP, the socialist Left party and the Pirates both looked set to fall short of the 5-percent threshold. The Greens were polling around 12 percent, which would mark an improvement on 2008, and Bavaria's "Freie Wähler" (Free Voters) - a group arguing primarily for decentralization of government - were around the 8-percent mark. The Freie Wähler won entry to the Bavarian parliament for the first time in 2008 and are running their first ever national campaign this year.

Bavaria is Germany's wealthiest state and its largest in terms of surface area, though it boasts fewer inhabitants than the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

msh/slk (AFP, dpa)