Can the Center Hold? Bavarian Elections Leave EU Politics Even More Uncertain

Munich is the capital of the state of Bavaria.

(CN) — Bavarian voters did what they were expected to do Sunday: They dealt German’s ruling “grand coalition” of conservatives and Social Democrats a resounding defeat at the polls. It’s a defeat that casts doubt on the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s political lodestar.

Sunday’s Bavarian result showed that the desire to throw out entrenched political parties is not abating in Europe.

“More and more voters are no longer firmly tied to traditional parties,” said Kai Arzheimer, a professor of politics at the University of Mainz.

This time the discontent was directed against the Christian Social Union and the Social Democratic Party. Each saw their vote share slide by about 10 percent. The winners were a resurgent Green Party and a new far-right party, the Alternative for Germany.

Although only a state election, political analysts were watching the outcome in Bavaria with keen interest because of the region’s economic and political importance. It is home to corporate giants BMW and Siemens and is Germany’s second most populous state.

The contest also was seen as a barometer to gauge support for Merkel, who retained the chancellery in 2017 national elections but only after a poor showing. She has been Germany’s leader since 2005, but her future now is shrouded in uncertainty.

The Christian Social Union is the sister party of the Christian Democratic Union, Merkel’s party. These two conservative sister parties and the center-left Social Democrats have governed Germany in a so-called grand coalition since 2013.

The Christian Social Union has enjoyed nearly uninterrupted electoral success — and almost seamless absolute majority — in Bavaria’s legislature since the end of World War II.

But on Sunday, such dominance was smashed. The CSU saw its vote total dwindle to a low of 37 percent, according to early election results. In the last elections in 2013, it picked up almost 48 percent of votes.

The Social Democrats fared even worse. They brought in about 9.6 percent of votes, down from 20.6 percent in 2013. They dropped from second place in the vote tally in 2013 to fifth this year.

The day’s big winners were the Greens and the Alternative for Germany, or AfD. The Greens pulled in more than 17 percent of the votes, their best tally ever in Bavaria. The AfD —  a far-right party with its nationalist, anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant stances — took just over 10 percent of the vote.

German newspapers were quick to portray the results as ground-shaking.

Die Welt, a center-right newspaper, said the CSU’s “debacle” could signal the end of Merkel’s grand coalition. The Suddeutsche Zeitung, Munich’s center-left national newspaper, concurred, and said a shakeup was coming. Der Spiegel, a weekly magazine, said the main parties are “losing their foundations.”

Arzheimer said social and economic changes are at the root of a shift in voting, with people more apt to “respond to situational triggers” and vote against main parties.

In Bavaria, he said, voters were put off by the “abysmal public appearance” of the coalition parties and by the CSU’s ploy to make immigration and asylum-seekers a central theme.

“In reality, many voters had moved on and/or were more interested in truly regional issues such as housing and education,” he said in an email to Courthouse News.

The CSU was pushed into a hard-line approach on immigration by the AdF and publicly feuded with Merkel over how to deal with asylum-seekers. Merkel’s popularity has suffered since she decided to allow about 1.3 million asylum seekers into Germany in 2015, as the Syrian war raged.

But don’t expect a major shakeup just yet. Another key German election is taking place Oct. 28, this time in Hessen, home to Germany’s financial capital, Frankfurt. In Hessen, Merkel’s CDU is in government and it’s polling poorly, making the stakes even higher for the chancellor.

The election was also a defeat for mainstream politics in Europe. Europe is witnessing long-held political certainties, and long dominant parties, upended.

Most recently, in September elections, Sweden saw its political stalwart, the Social Democrats, fail to conjure up the votes it needed to form a government quickly. As of Monday, a new Swedish government had not been formed. As in Bavaria, Sweden saw a rise in popularity for an anti-immigrant party, the Sweden Democrats.

More profound were the losses by major parties in Italy in general elections in March. The mainstream parties, the center-left Democratic Party and the center-right Forza Italia, crashed. The Democratic Party lost spectacularly, picking up only 19 percent of the vote and Forza Italia about 14 percent. The winners were an anti-establishment and untested political party, the 5-Star Movement, and the right-wing anti-immigrant and former secessionist party, the League.

In France, the traditional parties — the Socialist Party on the left and the Republicans on the right — collapsed in general elections in the spring of 2017. The presidential runoff was a fight between Emmanuel Macron, a centrist who had formed a new party, La Republique En Marche, and Marine Le Pen, the leader of National Front, a right-wing, anti-EU party.

The next big test for European politics will come in May, when voters across the bloc vote for members of the European Parliament. And those elections don’t bode well for mainstream parties.

Arzheimer said voters are “even more willing to experiment with their vote” in EU parliament elections “because the stakes are perceived as relatively low.”

Thus, he expects Germany’s main parties — the union parties and the Social Democrats — to do very badly.

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

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