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Exit polls: big win for Merkel allies in Bavaria

Geir Moulson, Associated Press

German Chancellor Angela Merkel waves during an election campaign event of the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Bad Koestritz, central Germany, on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013. Word in background reads: 'Germany'. Merkel, the leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) and top candidate of her party will be challenged by Social Democratic Party (SPD) top candidate Peer Steinbrueck at Germany's general elections on Sept. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

BERLIN (AP) -- Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative allies triumphed in Bavaria's state election Sunday, though her partners in government suffered a painful setback just a week before Germany's national vote, exit polls indicated.

ARD and ZDF television exit polls showed the Merkel-allied Christian Social Union, traditionally the dominant force in the prosperous southern region, winning 49 percent support.

That's enough to win back an absolute majority in the state legislature that the CSU lost in 2008. But the polls gave Merkel's national governing partners, the pro-market Free Democratic Party, only 3 percent support — meaning they would lose their seats.

Germany's main opposition party, the Social Democrats, finished a distant second with about 21 percent — better than the post-World War II they hit five years ago, but far too little to give them any hope of unseating the conservatives. And their allies, the Greens, lost ground to score 8.5 percent.

"It's a great day for the CSU," said Merkel's agriculture minister, Ilse Aigner, a member of the party — which has led Bavaria since 1957, most of the time with an absolute majority.

The Social Democrats of Merkel's challenger, Peer Steinbrueck, pointed to the positive; general secretary Andrea Nahles said it was a good result by Bavarian standards and noted that hers was the only opposition party to make gains.

Merkel, who is favored to win a third four-year term next Sunday, has benefited from Germany's strong economy and low unemployment.

That's even truer in Bavaria, the tradition-minded homeland of retired Pope Benedict XVI and also a high-tech and industrial center, where nearly 9.5 million people are eligible to vote. Its jobless rate is just 3.8 percent, the lowest of any German state and well below the national average of 6.8 percent.

Still, the Free Democrats' weakness is a concern for Merkel. They're also weak in national polls, and Sunday's outcome opens up the possibility of Merkel supporters switching their support to the smaller party to ensure that it tops the 5 percent support needed to keep its seats in the national Parliament — which could weaken her conservatives.

"Those who want Angela Merkel must vote for Angela Merkel," Armin Laschet, a deputy leader of the chancellor's Christian Democratic Union, told ARD television. The Free Democrats "will make it," he added.

The smaller party has been a fixture in post-World War II Germany's national party but isn't traditionally strong in Bavaria.

National polls show Merkel's conservative bloc of her Christian Democratic Union and the Bavaria-only CSU leading the pack — though not by the margins the CSU enjoys in Bavaria.

However, they show her current center-right coalition roughly level with the combined opposition, with a lead of up to about 10 points over Steinbrueck's hoped-for alliance of his Social Democrats and the Greens. That suggests she may need a new coalition partner.