16 October 2018

Bavaria’s election shows the good old days of German politics are over


Under long-time Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany had always been used to stability. Regardless of which political crises would hit its neighbours and other countries in the world, it was guaranteed that in Germany, the government would stand tall. Yes, there was the odd conflict or controversy, but rarely anything more serious.

These were the good old days, Merkel has to be thinking by now. Ever since last year’s general election, when her conservative CDU, its Bavarian sister party the CSU, and the social democratic SPD all suffered heavy losses, her job has gotten much more difficult. The three parties decided to establish a governing coalition, nonetheless, but since the new government came into force in March of this year, one crisis has followed another. At this point, the big surprise is that this “grand coalition’ is still somehow holding together.

And for many voters, there’s nothing especially ‘grand’ about the arrangement. Yesterday’s elections in Bavaria, Germany’s largest and economically strongest state, showed once again that people are frustrated by the establishment parties. They may have taken their time, but Germans are now joining the rest of Europe in looking for alternatives from the so called ‘Volksparteien’, the parties that have ruled for decades.

In Bavaria, Merkel’s conservative partners the CSU saw their share of the vote plummet by ten percentage points to reach 37.2 percent. While they are still the largest party by some distance, yesterday was their worst result since 1950.  It was even worse for the SPD who ended up in fifth place with just 9.7 per cent of the vote, having lost almost eleven percentage points over the last five years.

Indeed, of the established parties, only the liberal FDP and the Left Party did worse – the latter ultimately finished at 3.2 per cent, thus not getting any seats in Bavaria’s Parliament, and proving once more that Bavarians are not all that keen for a Marxist revolution (not even desperate billboards claiming Jesus was a Leftist did the trick).

The two big winners meanwhile were the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Greens. Many CSU voters flocked to the AfD, looking for a party farther to the right and (even) more critical of Merkel’s refugee policy. Ultimately the vote tally of 10.2 percent was slightly disappointing – having occasionally polled at almost 15 percent, it was less than expected – but it still makes for the biggest win of any party. And it means the AfD now has seats in 15 of 16 state parliaments.

But it was the Greens who really made waves, with the party doubling its vote to come second with 17.5 per cent.

That does not mean Bavarians have suddenly converted to left-wing environmentalism. Rather, it reflects deep dissatisfaction with the Social Democrats – and a disillusionment among more centrist CSU voters with the party’s sometimes harsh and intolerant tone. As the Greens have shifted more to the centre, and as the SPD continues to coalesce with the conservatives, there is a real possibility that the Greens could become the main centre-left party in Germany in the medium to long term.

As far as Bavarian politics go, the CSU will not have much difficulty remaining in power. They can rely on the support of the Free Voters, a localist party which is all over the place when it comes policy, and whose presence is restricted to its home state, but which managed a creditable 11.6 per cent of the vote.

Nonetheless, the vote will have major implications well beyond Bavaria. The feeling is that heads have to roll, and it will most likely be that of Horst Seehofer, the controversial leader of the CSU and Germany’s Interior Minister – he has been battling Merkel for years over migration, even threatening to bring down her government over the summer.

There are also rumblings within the SPD. The party has never done particularly well in Bavaria, but a single digit vote share marks a new low. Meanwhile the “Grand Coalition,” which only happened because the SPD broke its own promise to not support the conservatives again, is as unpopular as ever.  The Social Democrats are looking into the same abyss as so many of Europe’s social democratic parties, : the possibility of actually becoming irrelevant.

Then there is Merkel herself: all of her partners are in a bad position and she is not doing much better herself. The next crisis is just a matter of weeks, if not days away. At this point, there are real question marks over whether she will survive the rest of her tenure. Her government collapsing seems ever more likely, though it’s impossible to predict precisely when.

Putting the Bavarian election into a bigger picture shows that establishment parties in Europe are continuing losing ground both to the far-right and more left-wing parties. It also means that the polarisation of politics will continue.

Bavaria looked one of the unlikeliest places for a revolt against the status quo. People used to vote either for the CSU – “because they are Bavarian” – or for the SPD, because they are not the CSU.

That era is well and truly over: today it’s the AfD and the Greens who have reason to be cheerful.

Kai Weiss is a Research and Outreach Officer at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member at the Hayek Institute