Bavarian election could be the canary in the mine for Merkel

Poor showings for her centre-right alliance could catalyse her transition out of power

The CSU’s Markus Soeder and Munich’s mayor, Dieter Reiter, at Oktoberfest. Photograph: Peter Kneffel/AFP/Getty Images

The CSU’s Markus Soeder and Munich’s mayor, Dieter Reiter, at Oktoberfest. Photograph: Peter Kneffel/AFP/Getty Images

 

It’s 11am at Munich’s Oktoberfest and, inside the vast Schottenhamel tent, the beer is flowing freely. In between slugs from their one-litre beer mugs, 8,000 cheery patrons sing along with the brass band as it plays – not for the last time today – the unofficial anthem, Heut’ ist so ein Schöner Tag (Today’s Such a Lovely Day).

Outside the toilets, where trade is equally brisk, local man Konstantin Weber – in well-worn lederhosen and emerald green waistcoat – surveys the scene with reverence.

“It looks so easy but it’s such hard work to make all of this function,” he says, waving his hand at the acrobatic waiters and cavernous kitchens. “It’s a bit like Bavaria: people take our success for granted but it’s the work of a decades-long political process.”

Next Sunday’s state election here is a referendum on that post-war process – and the party behind it.

Some 9½ million Bavarians are called to vote, and polls show the ruling Christian Social Union (CSU) down 15 points to just 33 per cent. Such a final result would be a staggering political slap – in Bavarian a Watsch’n – that would trigger a political earthquake. This would be felt initially in Germany’s largest federal state – the same size as the Republic of Ireland with 2.6 times the population – and followed by untold political aftershocks in Berlin.

The CSU, tricky sister party to chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has ruled Bavaria without interruption for 61 years, transforming a once-sleepy farmland into a prosperous high-tech paradise with a confidence that has prompted it to launch its own space programme: Bavaria One.

Continuous CSU rule has created an overlap with Bavarian identity that remains unique in Europe. Imagine the GAA as a political party and you get an idea of the CSU’s reach, clout and culture.

Falling apart

So why is it all falling apart? Struggling to find answers is Bavarian interior minister Joachim Hermann, a big and rotund man with a deep, sonorous voice.

In his ministry overlooking Munich’s Odeonsplatz, his eyelids heavy with fatigue, he rattles off the Bavarian statistics: highest economic and population growth rates, combined with the lowest unemployment and crime rates.

Is the slide in polls a sign of unhappiness with the CSU, or its difficulty managing high voters expectations? Hermann suggests it is a bit of both.

An election billboard of CSU lead candidate Markus Soeder: “Whoever comes to us [in reference to immigrants] must adhere to our values.” Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
An election billboard of CSU lead candidate Markus Soeder: “Whoever comes to us [in reference to immigrants] must adhere to our values.” Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

“With its glorious nature Bavaria was beautiful before the CSU, but much of the rest today is the work of the CSU,” he said. “We are fighting for every vote. Now it’s about getting the best result possible.”

He says frankly that many voters “want to teach us a lesson”, by drifting further right to the populist Alternative für Deutschland.

In third place on 12 per cent, the AfD is likely to enter the Bavarian state parliament for the first time next weekend after a textbook study of how not to deal with it. First the CSU ignored theAfD, then began imitating it with a tough immigration strategy.

Hermann favours the latest – attack – approach, but would it have been better to try that earlier? “Like many questions in life, when you make a clever decision it would have done no harm to reach it three years earlier,” he says. “The old maxim applies: better late than never.”

This strategic mistake could have far-reaching effects on the CSU party leadership. If disaster strikes on October 14th, Hermann is already a frontrunner to take over as federal interior minister in Berlin from CSU leader Horst Seehofer.

Women wearing regional Bavarian folk dresses celebrate Oktoberfest. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Women wearing regional Bavarian folk dresses celebrate Oktoberfest. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Since the mercurial Seehofer headed to Berlin last year, party officials accuse him of being more interested in settling old scores with Angela Merkel than his work as minister or CSU leader.

But if he is one scapegoat, the other will be Bavarian president Markus Söder.

Ruthless opportunist

The 51-year-old snatched the top job in the State last year but has struggled to become a paternal figure or shake off his reputation as a ruthless, self-serving opportunist. When he warned of “asylum tourists” in the summer, he alienated voters of all hues in the catch-all CSU family.

A law obliging public buildings to display a Christian cross backfired with conservative CSU voters and bishops, who resented him calling the crucifix a “cultural” rather than religious symbol.

Liberal CSU voters, meanwhile, were repelled by new provisions allowing Bavarian police powers to investigate “looming” rather than “concrete” dangers – prompting mass street protests.

Natascha Kohnen, centre, frontrunner of the SPD in Bavaria, and Katharina Schulze, right, frontrunner of the Green Party in Bavaria. Photograph: Andreas Gebert/Getty Images
Natascha Kohnen, centre, frontrunner of the SPD in Bavaria, and Katharina Schulze, right, frontrunner of the Green Party in Bavaria. Photograph: Andreas Gebert/Getty Images

To boost its profile in Berlin, the CSU has picked a series of rows in the grand coalition running Germany – but created an impression of navel-gazing rather than governing.

That is a gift for Bavarian AfD candidates such as Markus Plenk in Traunstein, a pretty rural town near the Austrian border.

Plenk, an organic farmer in a traditional Bavarian jacket with a slow, broad accent, says the local AfD is successful because it offers voters CSU politics anno 1989. He is not concerned that leading AfD figures elsewhere are adopting far-right positions and xenophobic allies.

“We don’t have any discussion like that here,” says Plenk. “The conservative wing has the upper hand; that is what makes us strong here.”

Refugee crisis

That and the refugee crisis of three years ago that put the AfD back in the game and Bavaria on the front line. About one million people came to Germany, but the CSU, despite loud misgivings, backed the liberal line of Merkel.

That cost it votes here, and knock-on fears over integration and security saw the AfD quadruple its support in last year’s federal election to 14.5 per cent. The party hopes for a repeat next Sunday, and not just by capitalising on migration concerns.

Beyond migration, the party has tapped into a new fear stalking Bavaria: Zukunftsangst. After decades of prosperity, people worry about the spiralling cost of housing and adequate old-age care. Failure to address fundamental concerns by “politicians in Berlin” – a line cultivated for decades by the CSU – has now been co-opted by the AfD.

Alongside the AfD, the other big winner in the Bavarian election is likely to be the Green Party. Now polling 17 per cent, double its 2013 result, the Greens are Bavaria’s second-largest party and ready to take power as a CSU coalition partner.

Like the AfD, its success is down to co-opting CSU policy – in this case the love of Heimat or homeland – to raise questions about the limits of growth.

Munich’s housing crisis has prompted a flight to satellite cities, creating a domino effect of property prices and fears the Bavarian countryside is vanishing under concrete.

Katharina Schulze, the energetic Green co-leader in Bavaria, says her party is offering a sustainable political alternative, and not just in planning. It is a progressive, liberal, pro-European voice that is open and not closed to the world, she says. An anti-AfD in other words.

“People are tired of the escalation spiral of hate but they want clear positions,” she says. “People want a vision of where society should go but, in Germany, we have people in office just administrating and a grand coalition that is pre-occupied with itself.”

For Berlin’s coalition chief, Angela Merkel, a bad Bavarian result would bode ill elsewhere. Two weeks after Bavaria, her CDU faces re-election in its traditional state stronghold of Hesse.

With German politics already in transition, Merkel knows that poor showings for her centre-right alliance this month will catalyse an autumn of discontent and her own transition out of power after almost two decades as CDU leader and 13 years as chancellor.

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