The great beneficiaries have been The Greens Bavaria curbs populism and sinks social democracy

18/10/2018

Roberto Inclán is a Germanist and an analyst. Academic coordinator at Instituto Atlántico de Gobierno


In football and politics, there are two truths accepted by everyone. However, they are not completely true and not eternal either: football is a sport in which you play 11 against 11 and Germany always win; and Bavaria is a place where elections are held, and the CSU always wins. While the former truth is now more than questionable, the latter one is still valid, although no longer so manifestly.

Last Sunday, 14 October, elections to the Bavarian regional parliament were held, and the big news was that the Christian Social Union (CSU) became an earthly party and ceased to be the overwhelming machinery that accumulated majority after majority. Not only did the CSU lose the absolute majority, but it also recorded its worst result since 1950 with 37.2% of the vote[1] – a drop of more than ten points from 2013, when it gained 47.7% of the vote[2]. The real winners of the election night were the Greens, who doubled the result obtained in the previous elections and achieved an 8.6% rise to second place with 17.5% of the vote. Likewise, the third political force was the group constituted by the Free Voters, who gained 11.6% of the vote (they achieved 9% in 2013), a result that allows them to become a significant actor in the negotiations to form a government.

One of the parties with the highest expectations in those elections was the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), to which many of the polls gave a second position, and whose electoral wear with the CSU has limited them to the fourth position with 10.2% of the vote. This result leads them for the first time to enter the Bavarian parliament, although it is a somewhat disappointing result for a party which had been the media star in recent months.

The social democrats of the SPD (formerly an important party in Germany), who have been unable to formulate their own discourse during this campaign, deserve a special mention. They have been perceived by the population only as an extension of the brand that governs in coalition with Merkel in Berlin, but without personality. Their electoral fall, from 20.6% of the vote in 2013 to 9.7%, has taken them to fifth place, something unthinkable until very recently and that generates a crisis which they might hardly overcome. For its part, the left-wing party Die Linke, which gained 3.2% of the vote, did not even get the minimum of 5% to enter the regional parliament.

The great beneficiaries of the SPD debacle have undoubtedly been the Greens, who have fled populist discourses, such as those maintained by the CSU and AfD, and have portrayed themselves as a friendlier party for society with an integrating, conservative, Europeanist character, as well as tolerant with the problem of immigration. Thanks to this, they have managed to channel the discontent of the population with the two major parties. The Greens’ success has been particularly noticeable in the big Bavarian cities, and especially in Munich, the capital of this federal state. Thus, in the city centre district, the Greens were the most voted force with 42.5% of the vote, followed by the CSU with 16.1% and the SPD with 13.1%. On the opposite side, AfD won only 3.7% of the vote, far from the 10% achieved in Bavaria as a whole[3]. However, the Greens’ great success is unlikely to be matched by any kind of power at the regional level and to become a real alternative government to the CSU. This success will therefore be measured by their ability to make their 17.5% of the vote to be heard in the Bavarian parliament and, especially, by the effect it may have on future elections, as the Greens could become Germany's second most voted party in detriment of the increasingly insignificant SPD.

One of the main mistakes of the CSU has been to radicalise their discourse in an attempt to stop the rise of AfD. To this end, both the CSU’s candidate Markus Söder and the current Bavarian Minister of Internal Affairs and Minister-President of Bavaria between 2008 and 2018, Horst Seehofer, have followed a line close to AfD, something they have ended up considering desirable. It tends to happen that, when you try to fight an enemy, you end up adopting their postulates. The consequence has been that on this occasion both parties have achieved the same percentage of votes as only the CSU did in 2013, despite the good progress of the Bavarian economy. As Bernd Ulrich states[4], the CSU has lost the “magic power” maintained for decades and will have to learn to live as a normal party. Thus, the CSU will have to seek and agree with a partner to maintain control over the Bavarian government. Two main options stand out as possible scenarios to form a government. The first one would be a coalition of the CSU with the Free Voters, which would make 108 seats. The second one would be a higher majority between the two most voted parties -the CSU and The Greens-, which would bring together 121 parliamentarians, and would give greater stability to the Bavarian Parliament.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, for her part, has attributed the poor results of the CSU and SPD to citizens’ loss of confidence in politics. In this sense, she considers that the grand coalition government “has lost a lot of confidence,” and that the lesson to be learnt from these elections is that, “more is still to be done to ensure that we regain citizens’ confidence.”[5]

These events could have serious consequences for Angela Merkel's party, given that, on 28 October, regional elections will be held in Hesse, a Land of great economic importance, to whose territory Frankfurt (European finance’s capital and headquarters of the ECB) belongs. Hesse is currently governed by Volker Bouffier (CDU) –in coalition with the Greens–, who, according to the latest polls, would win around 30% of the vote[6] –as opposed to 38.3% in 2013–, and there is also a scenario in which he will have to seek an ally in order to remain in the regional government. If the negative dynamic is confirmed, eyes will clearly turn to the federal government, which could take action on a grand coalition that is not proving beneficial to any of its members, who continue to lose power and influence on the benefit of other parties such as the Greens or AfD.

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