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Bavaria Takes Center Stage of European Politics

A political earthquake is expected in elections this Sunday in the politically conservative and traditionally stable German state of Bavaria – a tremor that could rattle the foundations of Europe's political structure.

(CN) – A political earthquake is expected in elections this Sunday in the politically conservative and traditionally stable German state of Bavaria – a tremor that could rattle the foundations of Europe's political structure.

If the opinion polls are correct, the political dominance of Bavaria's long-ruling conservative party, the Christian Social Union, could see its voters fleeing to an emerging far-right party, the Alternative for Germany, and even to the liberal Greens.

What makes this electoral scenario so noteworthy is that the Christian Social Union is the sister party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. Together in a “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats, the CDU and CSU form Germany's national government.

So, the thinking goes, if the CSU suffers heavy losses, as expected, this will be further evidence that Europe's establishment parties are under assault. Perhaps more significantly, it also could spell trouble for Merkel, who, as the leader of Germany, is considered Europe's most powerful politician.

“The CSU's demise is another case of the decline of catch-all parties across rich democracies,” said Carsten Nickel, an analyst with the London-based political risk firm Teneo Intelligence.

The CSU, a proudly mainstream conservative party, has ruled Bavaria with an absolute majority for most of the past 50 years.

Nickel said CSU sees its mainstream policies as having enabled Bavaria's “rise from agricultural hinterland to technological powerhouse.”

Bavaria is Germany's second most populous state and home to BMW and Siemens, among other corporate giants, and a slew of medium and small-sized firms that make up the backbone of Germany's successful economy.

Despite Bavaria's well-being, voters are discontent – just as they are across Europe.

“There are winds of change blowing across Europe,” said Markus Soeder, the Bavarian minister president and regional CSU leader, at a recent campaign rally. “It challenges established institutions. And that spirit of change doesn't stop at Germany's borders or Bavaria's borders. It is sweeping across our country.”

The big winners in this climate of change are diametrically opposed to each other: the Alternative for Germany and the Greens.

The AfD's poll numbers have slipped in Bavaria, but it is still expected to win about 10 percent of the votes. The Greens' polling numbers, meanwhile, have improved and the party now is expected to win about 18 percent of ballots and become the second largest party behind CSU. The CSU is expected to win between 33 and 35 percent of the vote and lose its absolute majority.

The AfD came into existence about five years ago and since its founding has haunted German society with its growing ranks of far-right supporters and anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Its leaders want to ban the wearing of burqas and the Muslim call to prayer and close Europe's borders to most asylum seekers.

In last year's national elections, the AfD won 92 seats in the Bundestag, the lower house of federal parliament, becoming German's third-largest party. The party performed best in parts of Eastern Germany, where unemployment is higher but also where there are far fewer immigrants.

The party has no seats in the Bavarian Landtag, the state legislature. But it has high hopes for making inroads in Bavaria and putting pressure on Merkel, who has become an odious rallying symbol for its supporters.

Merkel's decision in 2015 – as the Syrian Civil War raged – to welcome about 1.3 million undocumented immigrants and refugees into Germany is viewed as a decisive moment in her chancellery. Support for AfD was weak prior to that and has spiked since.

The AfD sees itself bringing down the chancellor.

“This will be the final nail in the coffin [of Merkel],” Katrin Ebner Steiner, a leading AfD candidate in Bavaria, said at a recent rally.

Merkel's empathy for refugees and her support for gay marriage and banning military service have put her at odds with her Bavarian sister party.

She was in a bitter fight this summer with Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, the CSU leader. The AfD's rise has made the CSU veer further to the right and it has adopted anti-immigrant tones to staunch the loss of support.

While the AfD has eroded support on the CSU's conservative flank, the Greens have taken away voters on the CSU's left with its centrist, pro-Europe and pro-environment policies. The Greens have also benefited from the free-fall of the traditional left-wing party in Germany, the Social Democrats. The Social Democrats are expected to pick up about 11 percent of the votes in Bavaria.

“We're pro-Europe and we want to stay that way,” Katharina Schulze, a Green Party leader in Bavaria, told Deutsche Welle, a German news agency. “I think the people of Bavaria are done with politicians who spread hate and fear.”

Schulze, 33, is credited with the party's success: She's not just about fighting climate change and coal-powered plants, but she's made law and order and better support for police her talking points too. She's also made a name for herself by once giving neo-Nazi demonstrators the middle finger.

“In my view, the objective is to save the world, pragmatically,” she said, according to Corriere della Sera, an Italian newspaper.

But analysts think it is unlikely that the CSU would join the Greens to form a government in Bavaria. Still, that's a possibility.

Regardless, this is an encouraging moment for the Greens. The party has dropped its radical ecological policies and rebellious anti-authority tones and a new generation of leaders hopes to take up a centrist ground and become a major player in German politics.

It's been a long time since the Greens were in a position of power. Between 1998 and 2005, the Greens were in power with the Social Democrats to form a national German government.

The Greens are also likely to do well in state elections on Oct. 28 in Hessen. That upcoming election is viewed as an even bigger test for Merkel, whose CDU is the biggest party there.

Cain Burdeau is a Courthouse News reporter based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Government, International, Politics

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