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Exit polls: CSU wins absolute majority in Bavaria

Horst Seehofer's Christian Social Union (CSU) has won an absolute majority in Bavaria's regional election, according to exit polls. The CSU's coalition partner, the Free Democrats, have failed to win representation.

The Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian arm of Angela Merkel's conservatives, had a lead of almost 30 percent in the polls going into Sunday's vote.

Exit polls predicted that the CSU would likely secure just under 50 percent of the vote, a figure almost certain to translate into a majority of the 180 available seats. Next in line followed the Social Democrats, far adrift at around 20 percent in the polls.

Despite the numbers suggesting that outright victory is possible, State Premier Horst Seehofer has said throughout the campaign that he aims to continue a coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP). Unlike the CSU, the FDP appeared to be struggling for support, with exit polls suggesting the party would win just 3 percent of the vote, short of the 5 percent required to guarantee representation in parliament.

The environmentalist Green Party won a projected 8.5 percent of the vote, while the socialist Left Party came in at 2 percent support, thereby failing to win representation. The Free Voters (Freie Wähler), a regional party advocating decentralized government, were projected to take 8.5 percent of the vote.

Seehofer's Social Democrat challenger is the mayor of Munich, Christian Ude, who said he believed that undecided southern voters would prove the pollsters wrong on Sunday and narrow the margin to the CSU.

By midday, both Seehofer and Ude had cast their votes, Seehofer in his native Ingolstadt and Ude in Munich.

Election officials from polling stations at larger settlements said early turnout figures appeared similar to the 2008 election, when a somewhat disappointing 57.9 percent of roughly 9.5 million eligible voters chose to cast a ballot. However, officials also reported a marked rise in early voting, suggesting hope for slightly improved overall turnout.

A scene-setter, sans suspense

Chancellor Merkel and her Social Democrat challenger Peer Steinbrück both made frequent visits to Munich during their campaigns, at least in part because of the Bavarian vote's proximity to the German election.

Yet, as a litmus test for a national election, you could scarcely choose a less suitable state than Bavaria. The CSU has dominated the predominately Catholic region with its mix of high-tech industry and tradition since 1958.

Conservatives in modern Bavaria would define election "defeat" as having to seek a junior coalition partner in order to govern, as was the case after the last vote in 2008. An outright CSU victory, reclaiming the conservative heartland without the need to share, could send a strong signal for Merkel.

Yet a CSU success could backfire on the national level if it came at the expense of the Free Democrats. The FDP are also Merkel's national coalition partners, and polls suggest that the party might struggle to clear the 5 percent hurdle in the September 22 election. If the FDP failed to win 5 percent, Merkel would most likely need to seek an alternative alliance, almost certainly with a party less ideologically aligned to her Christian Democrats. It is also conceivable that a poor FDP showing in Bavaria might convince some of Merkel's supporters to switch allegiance next week in a bid to keep the chancellor's junior partners in the race.

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.

The Christian Democrats hold a comfortable lead over the Social Democrats in the nationwide polls too, although the margin is closer to 10 percent than 30. The FDP's weakness, coupled with the strength of the SPD's allies - the Greens - makes the German overall race considerably closer than Bavaria's.

Germany's wealthiest and largest state by surface area, Bavaria is second only to North Rhine-Westphalia in terms of population.

msh,slk/dr (AFP, dpa, Reuters)