October 10, 2018
Many in Berlin and across Europe will be closely watching Bavaria’s October 14 state parliamentary election for its implications for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition. The Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and one of three partners in her grand coalition, has long dominated the state’s unique politics, holding an absolute majority for all but one term since the 1960s. That dominance seems to be coming to an abrupt end, with repercussions that will be felt in Berlin. 

The latest polling numbers have the CSU at around 33 percent, a long way from its 47.7 percent in the 2013 state election. That year the CSU won a familiar absolute majority with 101 out of 180 seats in the state parliament. This time, it is all but certain that the CSU will lose its absolute majority.

It would be an understatement to say much has changed in Germany, and Bavaria, in the last four years.

For starters, the refugee crisis and ensuing debate have put the CDU-CSU alliance to the test—sometimes pushing it close to breaking point. Horst Seehofer, the leader of the CSU, a former Bavarian prime minister, and current federal interior minister, has repeatedly and publicly challenged the leadership and decision-making of a much-weakened Merkel in Berlin.

The CSU is used to a political landscape in Bavaria devoid of a legitimate actor on its right flank. That has changed with the emergence of the populist, right-wing anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Seehofer and his internal party rival and successor as Bavarian prime minister, Markus Soeder, have responded by charting a rightward, more populist shift of the CSU. In an effort to win back defectors to the AfD and yet retain centrist voters in a “big tent party,” Seehofer and Soeder have pushed socially conservative positions, tougher law and order measures, and most notably, more stringent border controls and asylum policies.

The outcome of the vote in Bavaria on October 14 could have wider implications for German politics and the challenges populism poses for mainstream parties across Europe.

Bavaria’s election and the grand coalition

If the CSU loses its absolute majority and fares as badly as the latest polls suggest, the repercussions will be felt in the grand coalition, with two likely alternative scenarios. A major defeat could trigger a process of internal party strife and cost Seehofer his ministerial post. His approval rating has suffered significantly in the wake of recent confrontations with Merkel, provoking at least two high-profile crises in the grand coalition at the national level.

Soeder most recently has begun to attribute bad polling numbers to the disarray in the grand coalition in Berlin, seemingly preparing the ground for saddling Seehofer with the blame for an electoral defeat. With the CSU distracted by its own internal politics and difficult coalition talks after the election, and Seehofer humbled or gone, Merkel’s coalition may be able to get back to the business of governing.

In the alternative scenario, however, a wounded CSU may become even more assertive in national politics as it tries to stem defections to the AfD, elevate its own profile, and promote a return to conservative values in its alliance with the CDU sister party. Especially on the last point, the CSU may find allies in Merkel’s critics in her own party who argue the chancellor has neglected the core brand and has moved the Christian Democrat platform too far to the left. This could spell more dysfunction, and near-death experiences for the grand coalition, especially as the third partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), is under severe pressure from bad polling and has grown tired of what it sees as CSU brinkmanship. The only incentive then to keep the CSU in check and in the coalition for the time being may be the threat of a repeat defeat in new federal elections that could follow the break-up of Merkel’s fourth government.    

Greens capture the center

Some of the CSU’s losses this weekend look to be the Greens’ gain. The Green party, not traditionally a strong force in Bavarian politics, has managed to fill the vacuum at the center of the Bavarian political spectrum left by the CSU’s rightward shift. The Greens are currently polling at around 18 percent, which would make them the second-largest party in the state parliament.  

While the Greens have benefitted greatly from the CSU’s campaign, they have also won over voters on their own accord with a campaign for a future in which dirndls and doener can co-exist. The party’s strategy has doubled down on deeper European integration, liberal immigration policies, as well as presenting itself as a pragmatic voice for democratic principles and civil discourse in the face of rising populism. At the same time, the Greens have emphasized social issues, such as rising rent prices, schools and education, infrastructure and transportation, and the local environment. This message, combining national and international issues with local Bavarian concerns and a strong anti-populist stance, has resonated with many Bavarian voters in Germany’s current political climate.

The rise of the Greens comes not only at the expense of the CSU, but also at that of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). The Greens, not only in Bavaria but increasingly across Germany, have presented themselves as a legitimate center-left alternative to the SPD amid its continued troubles after the worst postwar result in last year’s federal elections. Nationally, the Greens are polling just behind the Social Democrats. A second place in the October 14 election and the role of kingmaker in Munich could give that strategy a further boost in federal politics.

A party strategists’ Monday morning hangover

Whatever the election outcome on Sunday night, party strategists in Munich and Berlin will face a tough road ahead on Monday morning.

Bavaria is on course to see one of the most fragmented political environments in Germany, as seven parties could clear the 5 percent threshold and enter the state parliament. After the CSU publicly stated it would not work with the AfD, the only two-party coalition scenario according to the latest polls is CSU-Greens, which will make for a challenge. The fact that the two potential partners not only come from opposite traditions on the conventional German party spectrum, but have also chosen opposite approaches in dealing with the populist challenge, will make it hard to find common ground in coalition talks. Whether both parties are willing and able to set aside their differences and potentially build on what they achieved in federal coalition talks that ultimately failed last fall remains to be seen. Bavarian politics has its own rules, but the contrast on issues from integration and law and order policies to Europe seems stark.     

The bigger question for German and perhaps European politics will be how the CSU reacts to a likely loss of an absolute majority at home. On the eve of the election, it seems that while the Seehofer-Soeder strategy was intended to cut the CSU’s losses and win back the most conservative segment of its electorate, it has had the opposite effect. Much will depend on what lessons the party draws from that particular strategy to approximate the AfD and whether its two protagonists will suffer any direct consequences or feel emboldened to start an open challenge to Merkel’s politics of the center.   

Jörn Fleck is associate director at the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative.

Alex Baker is an intern at the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative. Follow him on Twitter @alexpieterbaker.

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