Merkel starts final vote drive wary of allies' woes

German Chancellor Angela Merkel launches a final week of election campaigning Monday with the wind at her back after a resounding victory for her conservatives in a Bavarian state poll.

But while her conservatives captured nearly one vote in two in the wealthy southern region Sunday, their coalition partners in Bavaria and at the national level, the Free Democrats, crashed out of the regional parliament.

Analysts said the result made a third term for Merkel look increasing likely in next Sunday's general election.

But it raises the prospect of a nail-biter finish to see whether she can continue her centre-right government or will have to form a "grand coalition" with her traditional rivals, the Social Democrats.

"This result means the federal election will be even more suspenseful," political scientist Juergen Falter told the online edition of the daily Bild.

"It's now more likely that you will see a grand coalition."

News weekly Der Spiegel said on its website Merkel's coalition faced "sizeable risks", agreeing that a grand coalition now had stronger odds.

"The good poll results in recent weeks and now the excellent CSU result could lead many CDU voters to think it's all over (and stay home on election day)," it said.

"Of even more concern to the Christian Democrats is the weakness of their coalition partner."

The conservative ruling Christian Social Union captured an absolute majority of seats in the Bavarian parliament in Munich with 48.8 percent of the vote, according to early results.

Its substantial victory means it can drop the FDP and govern alone.

"That is a huge vote of confidence," incumbent state premier Horst Seehofer told cheering supporters.

Merkel campaigned hard in the state's world-famous beer tents, pointing out that a big win in Bavaria would lend momentum to her bid for another term at the helm of Europe's top economic power.

National polls give Merkel's conservatives an around 13-point lead over the main opposition Social Democrats (SPD), who scored just under 20 percent in Bavaria, historically a conservative state, according to the provisional results.

Merkel's chief election rival, Peer Steinbrueck of the SPD, took heart from the Free Democrats' catastrophe.

"This is the 13th state election in a row in which the centre-right love match failed to win," he told public television.

"There is a good chance that this will also happen on the federal level in a week's time."

The ecologist Greens turned in a dismal 8 percent, in keeping with a downward trend on the national level.

The CSU has ruled Bavaria uninterrupted for 56 years with a winning strategy of "laptops and lederhosen" -- high-tech business savvy coupled with proud tradition -- in a region home to industrial giants such as BMW, Audi and Siemens.

FDP leader Philipp Roesler called the result a "bitter defeat".

"But it shows now is the time to fight, dear friends," he said to applause from supporters in Berlin.

"This is a wake-up call for all liberals in Germany."

Commentators said the poor showing in Bavaria by the Free Democrats could in fact give them a boost in the September 22 general election.

Voters who would like to see the Merkel alliance continue and who are concerned about the FDP's debacle in Bavaria might give votes to the party, dragging on the conservatives' own score.

"The FDP will now bank on a pity effect and votes from the conservatives," news weekly Die Zeit said on its website.

That prospect led many Christian Democrats to warn against ceding votes to the FDP.

"The FDP will be fine on its own -- stay cool, don't give away our votes," federal Environment Minister Peter Altmaier wrote on Twitter.

Merkel led a left-right grand coalition during her first four-year term. At the last election in 2009, a thumping 14.6-percent result for the FDP allowed Merkel to form a government with the conservatives' traditional allies.