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Poll leaves Merkel on ever shakier ground


Polling stations for the Bavarian elections closed on Sunday after around 9.5million citizens, including 600,000 first-time voters, had been given the chance to elect a new five-year state parliament.

Significantly, voter turnout reached 72.5 per cent. This was much higher than the last state election in 2013 (63.9 per cent). Events since 2013 have caused political and ideological tensions. Bavaria has become a gateway for immigrants, which has energised voters and pushed many hitherto passive electors to the polls for the first time.

Following this election Bavaria has a new political landscape.

The big losers were Angela Merkel’s national coalition partners, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Their attempt to outflank the Alternative for Germany (AfD) by tacking to the Right on immigration failed utterly.

During the campaign Bavaria CSU leader Markus Söder promised 3,500 more policemen and boasted about reviving the Bavarian border police force and setting up fast-track holding centres from which migrants refused permission to remain in Germany could be quickly deported. It wasn’t enough.

In twelve of the last thirteen Bavarian state elections the CSU won absolute majorities. This time the CSU experienced their worst election losses in more than 60 years. Though still the largest party in Bavaria with 36.8 per cent of the vote, they lost around 10 per cent of their vote share and are seriously weakened.

The CSU’s failure further destabilises Mrs Merkel’s ruling coalition with it and the Social Democrats (SPD), making it even harder for her to govern. The Guardian reckons the CSU’s weakened position could make it more pliant. But as tensions in Germany grow this is an unstable prop for Mrs Merkel to lean upon.

Another test for Merkel’s CDU party will come in a fortnight during the regional election in the western state of Hesse, home to Germany’s financial centre, Frankfurt. The CDU is widely expected to remain the largest party but will certainly lose votes. In December Merkel faces a CDU party congress when she will seek re-election as chairman. Senior conservatives have so far backed her bid despite ousting her ally Volker Kauder as leader of the parliamentary party last month.

In Bavaria, Merkel’s other national governing partner, the Left-leaning SPD, suffered disastrous losses. Once Bavaria’s second largest party, their support halved to 10.1 per cent. Without naming Merkel, SPD leader Andrea Nahles claims the ‘poor performance’ of the federal government in Berlin is one of the reasons for her party’s failure in Bavaria. ‘It’s clear that something has to change,’ she said.

Both the CSU and the SPD have turned on Merkel’s CDU, claiming the grand coalition caused their losses. Undoubtedly this played a part in their downfall but they also suffered from poor leadership and flawed strategies. Clearly Mrs May is not alone amongst mainstream leaders in being able to bungle elections.

The biggest winners in Bavaria were the Greens with 17.5 per cent of the vote, and they are now Bavaria’s second largest party. In what leader Reinhard Bütikofer terms a ‘lederhosen revolution’, the hard-Left pro-immigration ecologists more than doubled their vote. They attracted support from more liberal and environmentally conscious CSU voters and from those who traditionally voted for the Left-leaning SPD.

Sometimes called Germany’s Texas, Bavaria has seen similar demographic changes impacting its politics. In traditionally conservative Texas, due to its strong economy, there has been an influx of voters from failing Rust Belt states and California. Instead of adopting their host state’s politics, which have made Texas economically strong, the newcomers import the very politics from which they have fled.

Bavaria, with one of the strongest economies in Germany, attracts domestic migrants. These would be unlikely to vote for the conservative CSU, which is seen as a Bavarian party. Noting the weakness of the traditionally Left SPD, they were more likely to channel their votes to the far-Left Greens.

The same internal migration dynamic in Bavaria’s neighbour Baden Württemberg has brought a Green governor and economic decline, and a once-leading education system in free-fall.

The Free Voters (FWG), a loose association of voters rejecting traditional party politics, made gains in Bavaria and ended up with 11.9 per cent. The mainly centre-Right FWG’s policies range from more security services to equality in educational opportunities. They also oppose immigration and want stronger border controls. Having ruled out an alliance with the AfD, the FWG are the CSU’s most likely governing coalition partners.

Attempts by mainstream parties to outflank the insurgent AfD by moving to the Right clearly weren’t enough. The anti-immigration AfD sold itself as the real CSU. ‘The AfD delivers what the CSU promises’ was one campaign slogan. Standing in Bavarian state elections for the first time, it gained 10.3 per cent of the vote, though its target was 12 per cent.

When the AfD run an efficient campaign they make gains. With a poorly organised campaign and with the conservative anti-establishment vote split with the FWG they failed to reach their potential.

The AfD have form. The big winner in September’s federal election, they took 12.6 per cent only to sink immediately into an orgy of infighting. Former leader Frauke Petry left the party immediately after winning a seat in the election.

Unless the AfD can organise themselves properly they will go the same way as UKIP, and for the same reasons.

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Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack
Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack
Campbell is a retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Stirlingshire. He blogs at A Grain of Sand.

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