All of Germany, and indeed all of Europe—at least its political circles—will have its eyes on Munich on 14 October, anxiously awaiting the first vote tallies and predictions for the election to the Bavarian Landtag. What is it about Bavaria that makes this election so important?
Firstly, it marks the first election since the grand coalition between the Christian Democrats (CDU), their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democrats (SPD) was renewed at the federal level. Moreover, Bavaria is one of the largest and most highly populated German federal states. Together with Baden-Württemberg, it has produced some of the highest economic growth numbers for years. In terms of jobs, GDP, income per head, overall wealth and stock ownership, Bavaria is the country’s most economically successful region with countless wealthy inhabitants. Elections in this state always have a degree of national significance, and this time even more so.
Secondly, the CSU governs Bavaria. State elections always have direct national significance, as the CSU’s results have an immediate impact on its role, importance and strategy in the federal government.
Thirdly, the CSU represents a kind of state party in Bavaria, having ruled the state with an absolute majority for as long as anyone can remember. The only exception was in 2008, when the party was forced to enter a coalition with the Free Democrats (FDP). The next election with frontrunner candidate Horst Seehofer was enough to remedy this disgrace. That said, the CSU has been far from an absolutely majority in the polls for months now. The most recent numbers put them at only 35 percent.
Fourthly, the CSU’s power has been declining for years now: in the 1990s, the “Republikaner” threatened their position; in the early 2000s it was the “Freie Wähler”, who entered the Landtag with nearly 10 percent of the vote and mixed things up in several municipalities. More recently, the right-populist (and partially far-right) Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has been making things difficult for the CSU.
The AfD is contesting state elections in Bavaria for the first time, and will probably enter the Landtag with a double-digit result. In the 2017 federal elections, the party already received its best results in West Germany in Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemburg—the two wealthiest states in the country. For years now, the CSU has pursued a strategy of making the AfD superfluous by adopting its positions, and in some aspects even outpacing them rhetorically. The CSU criticized the government’s Europe policies such as the bank bailout and the credits for Greece with arguments similar to those deployed by then-AfD leader Bernd Lucke. Beginning in the summer of 2015, Bavarian Minister President Horst Seehofer attacked the federal government’s refugee policies as “the rule of injustice” and “the state’s loss of control”, a critique he continues as the new Minister of the Interior.
None of this has helped to shrink the AfD’s support. For this reason, after the 2017 elections the party replaced Minister President Seehofer with Markus Söder, who had pursued the same strategy for quite some time. Since then he has shifted his approach, distancing himself from the far-right and extremist excesses of the AfD and emphasizing the norms of bourgeois civility that Seehofer continues to violate in the national political arena, damaging (not only) his own public image. Söder now focuses on praising Bavaria as a state in which life is better than anywhere else in Germany, yet none of this seems to help. On the contrary: the original party of anti-modernisation, the AfD, continues to do well in the polls, along with the Greens.
Moreover, fifthly: the CSU’s politics of appeasing the right has pushed liberal-conservative segments of the electorate to turn away from the party and drift towards the Greens. This same phenomenon could already be observed in Baden-Württemberg. Liberal-conservative bourgeois layers no longer grit their teeth and vote CDU/CSU for the sake of keeping it in power, as they did during times of sharp ideological polarization. Nor do they vote for the party’s traditional kingmaker, the FDP, whose neoliberal escapades have even cost it its bourgeois base. And they most certainly do not vote for Die Linke. Thus, the Greens have become their alternative, garnering a sixth of votes in the polls in these times of party political rupture. In Bavaria, they could become the second-strongest party. Election forecasters ascribe to the Greens the most potential for growth today, occupying a position between the modernized CDU/CSU and an increasingly bourgeois Green Party. They already govern together in Hessen and Baden-Württemberg, as well as in Schleswig-Holstein as part of a three-way coalition with the FDP.
Thus, sixthly: should election results allow, the major question will be whether the historical confrontation between the CSU (and CDU) and the Greens will be resolved in Bavaria, and with it thus in the federal government as a whole, creating a new consensus around which the entire party system will reorient. The CSU would then conclusively cease trying to contest the parliamentary existence of a right-wing party by acting like an “AfD Lite”. The Greens in turn would no longer be automatically situated in the left-wing camp, but rather as a party of the left-liberal, ecologically-minded new bourgeoisie in the political centre, albeit still with a strong attraction on the left.
Seventhly, and necessarily: what will Horst Seehofer do after the Bavarian elections? He is not only a Federal Minister but also the chairman of the CSU, albeit only because after a historically bad election result on 14 October, somebody will have to take “responsibility” no later than 18:20 that evening. By stepping down from the CSU chairmanship, he will almost certainly have to step down as Federal Minister as well. Only almost, however, as all of his actions in recent months were also intended to damage Chancellor Merkel—almost as if he was trying to force them to step down together.
Whether or not this is the case, a weakened CSU in Bavaria will certainly throw the federal government into its next crisis, its next phase of internal political navel-gazing during which it will continue to ignore the many important issues concerning the people of Germany today. This will also contribute to growing pressure among the electorate to break through this political impasse. Symptomatic of this predicament is the treacherous automobile industry: millions of diesel car drivers still do not know what to do with their cars, although the first diesel bans in cities have been announced by the courts for next year. This is not only the case domestically, however: the federal government would also be unable to act in European policy, meaning we can assume that further processes of European disintegration will take place in the context of Brexit and the run-up to the EU elections in May.
But what about eighthly? Well, yes, Die Linke, which historically has performed poorly in state elections, is approaching the five percent threshold in the polls. This gives reason for hope. A party that reaches four or five percent in the last polls before election day has reason to believe that voters will give it a real chance at entering parliament and not treat a vote for the party as a wasted vote. The SPD will most likely not be able to halt its downward trend in the Bavarian elections, let alone reverse it. The self-doubt in the party will be bolstered, as will the voices calling for a renewal of the party in political opposition at the national level.
It thus follows that, ninthly: should the Bavarian elections and the elections in Hessen two weeks later result in a new Black-Green, liberal-conservative bourgeois majority, then a premature end to the grand coalition with subsequent snap elections seems increasingly likely.
Horst Kahrs is a Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung fellow specializing in the analysis of class and social structure.
Translated by Loren Balhorn.