Right set to firm up its grip on Bavaria

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NATIONALLY, Germany's opposition Social Democrats are still hoping that there may be a last- minute improvement in their fortunes and that they can oust Chancellor Helmut Kohl in parliamentary elections next month.

In Bavaria, however, the SPD does not even pretend to believe that it can take first place. In Germany's largest and richest state, it is certain that the CSU, the robustly conservative party that has ruled unchallenged for the past three decades, will be returned to power, in regional elections on Sunday. The only real question is by how much - and what will happen to the smaller fry.

Just as Mr Kohl defied all the sceptics by coming back from way behind to take a lead in the polls, so Edmund Stoiber, the Bavarian Prime Minister, has also proved that there is life after the political death-certificates have been written out.

Mr Stoiber's predecessor, Max Streibl, was forced to resign in 1993, over allegations of corruption. Earlier this year, the CSU vote had plummeted by a quarter, almost level-pegging with the Social Democrats and their potential coalition allies, the Greens. Meanwhile, the far-right Republicans, who are not represented in parliament, looked set to be elected, by a comfortable margin. In the words of one analysis, at that time, 'A monolith is crumbling.'

Now, however, things look very different. 'So that Bavaria remains ahead,' says the CSU slogan, which looks likely to be fulfilled. This is a party that can rely heavily on regional patriotism, since the CSU exists only in and for Bavaria (the CSU's sister party, Mr Kohl's Christian Democrats, covers the rest of Germany). Allegations of corruption have continued around the CSU - but these are regarded by many Bavarians as mere troublemaking by outsiders.

Mr Stoiber gained local popularity (and made trouble for himself in Bonn) by appearing to distance himself from Mr Kohl's dream of European unity. In particular, Mr Stoiber - 'Edmund Thatcher', in the headline-writers' phrase - complained that Bavaria was required to pay heavily into the European kitty, while getting little in return. He declared war on EU directives, arguing in favour of Bavarian farmers and artisans being allowed to do things in the time- honoured way. Even fellow-Germans do not get off lightly. Mr Stoiber - whose party, because of its Bavarian nature, can afford to offend voters elsewhere in Germany - is blunt: 'I call on the people in the east finally to recognise what we have done for them - and to have patience.'

Paradoxically, many of Mr Stoiber's fiercest attacks are not on the Social Democrats, but on the post-Communist PDS, which hardly exists outside eastern Germany. Such attacks have done little to dent the popularity of the PDS, a party which is increasingly seen as a defender of east German interests.