Popular discontent

Merkel’s Bavarian ally suffers historic loss in state vote

main 0204789146 Reuters – Bavaria election vote Markus Soeder Soder middle Germany state Angela Merkel federal implications Horst Seehofer CSU CDU SPD
Not wasting his vote: The Bavarian state premier and CSU politician, Markus Söder, center. Source: Reuters

Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, the sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, suffered a historic loss in Germany’s wealthiest state, losing the majority it has held for much of the postwar period. Despite the ninth consecutive year of economic growth and record employment levels, the party lost votes to two rising parties on the left and right, the Greens and the Alternative for Germany.

The CSU, led by controversial Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, won 37.2 percent of the votes, according to preliminary results. It was the party’s lowest rating since 1950. The CSU was expected to win 34 percent in the latest opinion polls surveys earlier this month. In 2013, it won 47.7 percent of the votes, but still won the majority in the state’s legislature due to a complicated system of awarding seats.

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 Mr. Seehofer.

In Bavaria, home to many big-name companies from BMW to Allianz, Siemens to fintech Wirecard, Ms. Merkel’s national coalition partner, the Social Democrats, or SPD, lost half its support, falling to 9.6 percent from 20.6 percent five years ago. The results confirm a German and European trend of waning support for centrist parties.

The winners are the pro-environment Greens and far-right Alternative for Germany, which became Bavaria’s second and fourth-largest parties with 17.5 percent and 10.2 percent of the votes respectively. Known by its German acronym AfD, the five-year old party has established a national presence since the backlash against Ms. Merkel’s open-door immigration policy in 2015. It did not participate in state elections in 2013, but did win 12.4 percent of the votes in Bavaria in last year’s federal vote. The AfD landed just behind the Free Voters of Bavaria, a local party which grabbed 11.6 percent of the votes.

Bavaria election preliminary results Germany Merkel CSU CDU Seehofer Soeder Soder

In an effort to win back voters from the AfD, the CSU toughened its stance on migrants over the past two years, but its strategy backfired, driving voters to the Greens. The CSU, however, is unlikely to lose power. It is expected to form a coalition with either the Free Voters or a combination of the Greens and Free Democrats.

CSU politician Wolfgang Schäuble, chairman of the German Lower House, told public broadcaster SWR before the election results became public that the Bavarian vote and the election in Hesse in two weeks will have “to some extent an impact on federal politics and therefore on the Chancellor’s reputation.”

Mr. Schäuble, a long-term confidante of Ms. Merkel, did not expect any immediate consequences until after the vote in Hesse, where the chancellor’s party CDU is forecast to suffer defeat.

The losses of Ms. Merkel’s ally CSU and the Social Democrats in Bavaria could lead to more tension in Ms. Merkel’s federal coalition of CDU, CSU and SPD. Interior Minister Seehofer, a former Bavarian state premier and still the CSU’s leader, has caused two crises in the national government on immigration as he sought to win back voters who switched to the AfD. Mr. Seehofer, 69, could be forced to give up leadership of the CSU, and cede the spot to Bavaria’s current state premier, Markus Söder, though on Monday, he stated that he had no plans to do so, according to DPA reports. There had even been speculation that Mr. Seehofer might even have to resign as minister. 

In the Social Democratic party, which has been in decline the past two decades, the opposition to participation in the current coalition could grow louder if it performs badly in Bavaria and Hesse.

Oskar Niedermayer, a former politics professor at the Free University in Berlin, did not predict an implosion of Ms. Merkel’s coalition due to the elections in Bavaria and Hesse; he thought only an event at the federal level could create such a crisis. In the long term, however, he did not rule out a premature ending of Ms. Merkel’s fourth term because of the erosion of trust between politicians in the leading three parties.

Several Handelsblatt reporters contributed to this article. To contact the authors: kreijger@handelsblatt.com

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