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Merkel's Bavarian allies vow to win back right-wing voters

PASSAU, Germany (Reuters) - Bavarian conservatives launched a drive on Wednesday to win back right-wing voters in a regional election in October, vowing to increase deportations of failed asylum seekers, tighten border security and beef up scrutiny of foreign funding for mosques.

Markus Soeder, slated to take over as leader of the Christian Social Union and become premier of the prosperous southern German state, won thunderous applause with an impassioned speech to a rally in Passau, near the Austrian border crossed by many Muslim migrants in 2015 and 2016.

Soeder, now regional finance and homeland minister, railed against the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which eroded the CSU’s traditional dominance in Bavaria in the Sept. 24 national election. He pledged to answer concerns of voters unnerved by the influx of over a million mostly Muslim migrants.

The CSU and its national sister party, Merkel’s Christian Democrats, both bled support to the anti-immigrant AfD, which became the first far-right party to enter parliament in half a century after the September elections.

“This is not about shifting to the right. It’s about returning to our past credibility,” Soeder told an annual Ash Wednesday rally, attended this year by over 4,000 people of all ages, many clad in traditional leather pants and dirndl dresses.

“We are there for the political middle, but we also want to reunite those on the democratic right with us.”

Soeder delivered a thinly veiled jab at conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel, noting that he had promised to push through a two-term limit for Bavarian premiers and such a restriction would also benefit Germany at federal level.

Merkel is under fire from conservatives for giving too many concessions to Social Democrats to renew a coalition deal with the center-left party.

This week she ruffled feathers within the CDU with her vow to serve another full four-year term - her fourth - if SPD members approve the renewed “grand coalition.”

Soeder seized on many of the themes highlighted during the national election by the AfD, underlining the need to champion Christian values, deport failed asylum seekers and stop an expansion of the euro zone to include Romania and Bulgaria.

He criticized recent news about a judge who removed a cross from his courtroom during a trial of a Muslim migrant, and said he would seek to change the Bavarian constitution to include a specific reference to “Christian and Western culture”.

The CSU, which lost more than 10 percentage points in the national elections, is fighting to retain its ability to form a majority government in deeply traditional and Catholic Bavaria.

Markus Blume, another senior CSU politician, told the crowd: “The AfD is ruining our society. We must protect Bavaria from the AfD.” He said the CSU wanted to win a majority in the state election to avoid any “rainbow” coalitions with other parties.

Additional reporting by Joern Poltz; editing by Mark Heinrich