Söder off

Merkel’s Bavarian ally heads for abyss in state vote

Markus Söder drowns his sorrows. Source: Reuters

Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, the sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, is headed for a disaster in the October 14 state elections. The CSU is sure to lose the majority it has held for much of the postwar period in the wealthy southern state. It will be lucky to even lead a coalition government.

While the writing has been on the wall for the conservative party for some time, the looming debacle is likely to have national repercussions. The CSU sits in the same group as the CDU in the national parliament, and also has three ministers in the current cabinet, including the controversial interior minister, Horst Seehofer.

Although a regional party, the CSU has been able to punch above its weight for decades thanks to its firm grip on power in Munich, the state capital. That is, until now.

In recent years, both the CDU and the CSU lost ground to the far-right Alternative for Germany, known by its German acronym AfD, due to the backlash against Ms. Merkel’s generous asylum policy.

This has forced the Bavarian party, always more conservative than the CDU, to parrot AfD rhetoric on immigrants while trying to hold on to more centrist voters. But this strategy is backfiring spectacularly. AfD support has risen to 20 percent in some districts while overall it is expected to win at least 12 percent of the state vote. This is in line with the 12.4 percent the anti-immigrant party got in Bavaria at the federal election a year ago.

But on the other hand, the CSU’s populist posturing to keep the AfD at bay has alienated moderates. Current polls put CSU support at just 33 percent, down from 38.8 percent at last year’s federal election — which was already a historic low. In Bavaria’s last state election in 2013, the CSU won a commanding 47.7 percent of votes and 56 percent of all seats in the state parliament.

Not just the economy

The clear winner so far has been the Green Party, which has pushed into the center and attracted disgruntled CSU voters in droves. The Greens are currently polling at 18 percent in Bavaria, a level of support never seen before in the state and almost twice their share of the vote last year.

And yet, on paper, Bavarian voters have little reason to complain. The state is one of the most prosperous regions in Germany and leads the country in security, education and employment. It is also home to many of Germany’s big-name companies, from BMW to Siemens and fintech Wirecard.

The blame for the impending debacle is sure to fall on Mr. Seehofer, a former state premier and still the party leader. His hamfisted attempts to thwart Ms. Merkel on the immigration issue and his pandering to the right by protecting an official who publicly spread far-right conspiracy theories last month after neo-Nazi riots rocked Chemnitz, have cost the CSU significant support.

The interior minister’s actions have come across as so much whining or petulance, giving the party a “querulous brand image,” said Werner Weidenfeld, director of the Center for Applied Political Research in Munich.

Chancellor Merkel will lose, too

His successor as state premier, Markus Söder, will be one of the “shooters” in the backlash against Mr. Seehofer following the election, according to political expert Heinrich Oberreuter.

But though Mr. Söder is already pinning the blame on his former mentor, his own divisive brand of politics certainly hasn’t helped either. In spring, his controversial push to adorn Bavaria’s official buildings with crosses drew a rare rebuke from Catholic and Protestant leaders, who accused him of exploiting religious symbols for political gains. The CSU doubled down and found itself bizarrely claiming that it was more adept at upholding Bavaria’s Christian identity than the Church itself.

This week, Mr. Söder launched “Bavaria One,” the state’s own €700 million ($807 million) space program. Detractors mocked the plan as far removed from voters’ actual concerns and smacking of hubris.

Soeder Bavaria Space Program 0204651745 Twitter
Space junk? Source: Twitter

Beyond the impact in Bavaria, the state vote has national implications. The CSU’S losses will further weaken Ms. Merkel politically after she suffered a number of setbacks recently. Mr. Oberreuter blames the defeat last week of Ms. Merkel’s pick to head the CDU/CSU alliance in the national parliament for sapping CSU support.

Also, the Bavarian result could have a knock-on effect for the CDU in the Hesse state elections two weeks later, causing them to lose ground and hurting Ms. Merkel even more.

Greens may be second-strongest party

The CSU did form a coalition government at one point with the Free Democrats (FDP), but that business-friendly party is hovering around the 5-percent threshold for parliamentary representation and may not even make it. In any case, if polls are correct, the two parties might have difficulty reaching a majority even if the FDP gets in.

The Greens are currently the second-strongest party and the obvious choice for a coalition partner. They play the kingmaker role formerly held by the FDP and currently take part in the governing coalitions in nine of Germany’s 16 states with either the CDU or the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). They have held on to power in neighboring Baden-Württemberg since 2011.

In Bavaria, the SPD has lost ground and is now polling only one point above the AfD, at 13 percent.

Anna Gauto and Christian Wermke are reporters for Handelsblatt. Darrell Delamaide adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: gauto@handelsblatt.com and wermke@handelsblatt.com

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