11 October 2018

German state elections normally don’t receive too much attention abroad. But, then again, Bavaria is no normal German state. Besides its cultural peculiarities (think of your Maßkrug, Lederhosen and BMW stereotypes), the state wields disproportionate political influence in Berlin. Its dominant party – the arch-conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) – has, through its effective marriage at the national level with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), been ensured a seat at the table of power for many years now. Although the party fields candidates only in the state of Bavaria, it has three federal ministries under its belt, including the powerful Ministry of Interior.

The repercussions of Sunday’s vote, if they deliver the upset that is expected, could thus reverberate deep into Germany’s government. Even more so since it is not only the CSU that is in for a shock – the other half of Germany’s coalition government, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), is also set for a painful defeat. According to the latest polls, the CSU is expected to see its share of the vote drop from 47.7% in 2013 to just about 33-35%. For the SPD, polls suggest a painful slide from 20.6% to around 10-12%. This comes as the far-right AfD is set to enter the Bavarian Parliament for the first time this weekend – polls expect the party to jump from zero to 11-13% in this election – while the left-liberal Greens are predicted to double their vote, from 8.6% to 16-18%.

The fragmentation of Germany’s political landscape continues

This weekend’s Bavarian state elections continue where Germany’s federal elections left off in 2017 – by further fragmenting the political space. The two established Volksparteien (major parties) of the centre-left and centre-right are predicted to tumble, while new contenders with clear messages on globalisation, immigration and European integration are expected to gain ground. At the same time, the number of parties in the Bavarian regional parliament is set to swell from four to six, potentially even seven. (In this regard, at least, Bavaria is indeed a relatively normal state, as the German political system favours political fragmentation).

The arch-conservative CSU are expected to receive the most damning defeat. The very party that has governed the state without interruption since 1957 – for most of this time without any coalition partner, an absolute anomaly in Germany’s political system – is predicted by polls to see its vote share slump by more than ten percentage points. If this came true, it would be the party’s worst showing in more than half a century! (Since 1950, to be precise). It would be a loss even bigger than the combined decline of the CDU and the CSU in last year’s national elections, where they saw their vote share fall by ‘only’ 8.6%. Even if such a fall in support doesn’t materialise, they are still likely to take a drumming.

Now where are all those former CSU votes going to? The common wisdom says to the far-right Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD), and this surely holds some truth. Much of the AfD’s surge in Bavaria will indeed be made up of disgruntled CSU voters, predominantly over the migration issue. But, and this is crucial, most of them will already have switched (in their mind, that is) quite some time ago, certainly at last year’s general election. Already back then, the AfD polled at 10-13% in Bavaria – while the CSU still was at 40%. So if the CSU’s losses in the polls since then have not boosted the AfD, who else has benefitted from them? The likely answer is: the Green Party (and, to a lesser degree, the Free Voters, a moderate localist party).

The Green Party is currently on the path to become the unexpected winner of this election. It is not only set to double its share of the votes – from 8.6% in 2013 to 16-18% – but may also end up as the second biggest party in the Bavarian parliament, thus superseding the Social Democrats as the champion on Bavaria’s political left. Now it is, admittedly, not particularly intuitive that a traditionally left-wing, environmentalist party would act as a major draw for previous conservative voters. Still, a recent poll, conducted at the national level, suggests: 1) that CDU and CSU since last year have lost more voters to the Greens than to any other party; 2) that around a quarter of the new support for the Green Party is taken from the CDU/CSU voter base. Why is that?

Part of the reason reaches back to the AfD. Filled with the (well-justified) fear that the far-right party was poaching its voters, the CSU decided to leap further to the right itself, taking increasingly more hardline stances and employing tougher rhetoric on immigration and integration. This ultimately did little to win back former supporters who had moved on to the AfD. But it did have the effect of estranging many of the CSU’s more liberal, centrist supporters, who felt that their party leadership was acting irresponsibly and immorally. As a result, many of them jumped ship – and found a new (at least temporary) home with the Green Party. Depending how substantive this voter movement ultimately turns out to be, it may lead to serious questions within the CSU over their political positioning.

Are the Greens en route to become Germany’s dominant centre-left party?

But saying the success of the Greens is merely, or even mainly, due to the rise of the AfD, would be taking it too far. Over the past years, the Green Party has gradually moved to the political centre, a shift that seems to have paid off. According to recent polls, the new supporters swelling the ranks of the Green Party on average are more centrist than the party’s traditional voter base. The party also profits heavily from the decline of the SPD, which is expected to see its votes nearly halved in Bavaria – they are currently polling at 10-12%, down from 20.6% in 2013 still. While the SPD bleeds voters in all directions, for many of their young, cosmopolitan voters, the Greens are the natural alternative.

As a result, these elections will most likely see the Greens replacing the SPD as Bavaria’s dominant party on the political left. On the national level, the parties are also polling at roughly the same level for several weeks now. While a change of power here has not yet happened, it is not unthinkable. There need to be two important caveats to this however. First, there is a certain tendency for the Greens to underperform at the ballot box in comparison to polls. Second, the Greens already moved ahead of the SPD in the national polls once. In 2011, the Greens polled at 25-28% for a few months, with the SPD at just 21-24% – but in the end, things went back to “normal.” Whether things will be different this time remains to be seen.

What happens after Sunday?

Expect some awkward days of exploratory coalition talks and scapegoating (particularly within CSU and SPD) from Monday onwards. The CSU will be in need of a coalition partner, potentially even two. The money currently seems to be on a CSU-Greens alliance – the model enjoys high levels of public support, but both parties would need to bridge considerable differences (think civil liberties versus law-and-order approach, for example). But if the CSU doesn’t feel the Green vibe, or vice versa (and many in both parties don’t), it could still decide to instead team up with its centre-right competitor, the Free Voters (FW), possibly even in a three-way coalition including the economically liberal Free Democrats (FDP).

A government without the CSU is theoretically possible, but extremely unlikely. This would necessitate a four-party alliance of Greens, Social Democrats, Free Democrats and Free Voters – parties that share little more than the will to govern and to score off the CSU. The leader of the Free Voters has already rejected the idea.

Berlin crisis mood likely to intensify

The outcome of the Bavarian elections is set to further aggravate the already tense relationship between the three parties in Germany’s governing ‘Grand Coalition’ – the CDU, CSU and SPD. The coalition has seen numerous rows since its inception in March this year, and has seen all three parties drop further in the polls. Calls from the party bases for radical change – either of leadership, or by terminating the coalition – are set to grow. Even more so if the state elections in Hesse, on 28 October, end in defeat as well. But whether these calls will become loud enough for either of the two scenarios to actually happen can, so far, still be doubted.

In a more immediate (and likely) consequence however, Merkel’s cabinet may experience a minor reshuffle. The CSU has started the search for its electoral-defeat-scapegoat early on this time around, with most politicians happy to point their fingers at party leader and German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer. If he gets the boot, he would be replaced by another CSU politician.