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Post State Elections in Bavaria and Hesse: An Analysis
Created by John Eipper on 11/01/18 4:19 AM

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State Elections in Bavaria and Hesse: An Analysis (Patrick Mears, Germany, 11/01/18 4:19 am)

This is a response to John E's invitation (30 October) to comment on the state elections held in Bavaria and Hesse, as well as Angela Merkel's recent resignation and leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Germany.

On October 14, 2018, the Christian Social Union party (CSU) of the Federal State of Bavaria suffered a heavy loss at the polls.  The CSU's vote total dropped from 47.7% in the 2013 state election to 37.2% on October 14, 2018. The CSU has been the ruling political party in Bavaria since 1957 and has been an acknowledged partner of the CDU there since the 1950s. The arrangement made between the two parties is that the CDU will forgo running candidates in the Bavarian elections and the CSU will hold itself available for coalition governments with the CDU in the federal government (the Bundestag). These two parties have cooperated fairly well during the period from the 1950s onward until the effects of the massive inflow of refugees, primarily from Syria and Afghanistan, during 2015 and 2016 began to be felt in Germany and especially in Bavaria, which was the main point of entry for refugees moving from Greece northwards through the Balkans and ultimately into Germany.

During 2015, Horst Seehofer, then the Minister President of Bavaria, began to severely criticize Angela Merkel's "Open Door" refugee policies and called for, among other things, (i) a cap on the number of asylum applications in the neighborhood of 200,000 per year, that could be made in Germany; (ii) restrictions on cash benefits paid to these applicants, and (iii) the creation of transit centers on Germany's borders, where asylum applicants would be required to stay pending decisions on their applications. Merkel refused to accept these demands and her resistance led to an escalation of friction and almost daily public clashes with Seehofer, which were duly reported by the media.

Another complicating factor has been the continued success of the right-wing, nationalist party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), which experienced a string of recent electoral successes that moved this relatively new entity into all of the German state legislatures, save those of Bavaria and Hesse. Two major "planks" of the AfD's political platform have been the party's strong opposition to Merkel's refugee policy and the party's currying of favor with the extreme right in Germany, which is particularly strong in the states of the former German Democratic Republic (DDR). AfD politicians have successfully played on the fears of conservative voters, who normally supported the CDU and CSU in prior elections, of criminal and terrorist beliefs and acts of a portion of Germany's refugee population.

Prior to these elections, these concerns were exacerbated by the stabbing death of a 35-year old Cuban-German man on August 26th on the streets of Chemnitz in the former DDR. Two Syrian refugees are suspected of this crime, which led to massive protests and even attacks on refugees in Chemnitz in the weeks following the incident. Only 10 days before, a Somali man was alleged to have stabbed a doctor to death in his Offenburg, Germany office, which act sparked a call to popular action by an AfD parliamentarian. As anticipated, local protests ensued. These actions and the response to them undoubtedly led the CSU to worry that conservative voters, disturbed by these incidents, would desert the party and either vote for AfD candidates in Bavaria or just stay away from the polls altogether.

On October 14th, the voter-generated turbulence feared by the CSU hit it with full force, resulting in the 12% drop in polling results since the last Bavarian state election. According to poll watchers and other commentators, the primary beneficiaries of this sea-change in voter attitudes were the Green Party and the AfD. The Greens enjoyed an increase in their state election results to 17.5% from 8.4% in 2013. The Greens campaigned "on a platform of open borders, liberal social values and the fight against climate change."  The AfD, now a newcomer to the state legislature, collected 10.2% of the vote. The outcome was a disaster, however, for the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD), the coalition partner in the national government with the CDU/CSU bloc. The SPD captured only 9.7% of the total vote, compared to 20.6% five years earlier. Its party leader, Andrea Nahles, characterized the result as a "bitter defeat" for the party. The conservative and business-oriented Free Democratic Party (FDP) narrowly entered the Landtag with a 5.1% result and the loosely organized, local and centrist party, the Free Voters of Bavaria, garnered 9.0%, entitling it to 19 seats in the new state parliament.

The reaction to these polling results was, first and foremost, an expectation that the current coalition government of the CDU/CSU/SPD will not survive to the next national election. The Financial Times commented as follows:

"The disastrous performance of both the CSU and SPD highlights the shaky ground the grand coalition in Berlin is now resting on. All three parties in the alliance. . .are haemorraging support." Quoting a senior AfD politician in an exercise of German Schadenfreude, the article continues by stating that these three parties are "in decline now." Further, the article's author comments that "some are now questioning whether the coalition, already frayed by personal rivalries and near constant bickering over policy, can survive a full term in office."

In Hesse as in Bavaria, public opinion polls taken prior to the October 28th election reflected voter disenchantment with the CDU, which in a coalition with the Greens has ruled the state parliament since 2013. Just prior to the Hesse election, the polls registered CDU support among the electorate at only 26%, down 12% from the 2013 election results. The local CDU party head, Volker Bouffier, blamed this drop in support on the constant infighting among the national coalition members, especially the row between the CDU and the CSU over asylum policies and the then-recent sacking of Hans-Georg Maassen as head of the federal domestic intelligence agency. Bouffier was quoted as saying that "when a government gives the impression that it is just constantly fighting, then people lose confidence in it, and the potential of protest parties just keeps growing. People's perception of the grand coalition is really bad right now and they make no distinction between Hesse and Berlin."

As predicted, the CDU lost big in the Hesse state elections, although it was able to form another coalition government with the Greens afterwards. The CDU captured 27.0% of the vote, which was 11.3% less than in 2013. The Greens increased their share of the vote by 8.7%, recording a total of 19.8% in the final tally. The AfD entered the Landtag with 13.1% and 19 seats. The SPD again registered disappointing vote totals, with only a 19.8% share of the vote, which was a 10.9% drop from its 2013 result. Both Die Linke and FDP squeaked into the Landtag with results of 5.2% and 5.0% respectively.

These two electoral disasters for the Grand Coalition members have resulted in a number of destabilizing developments in the German body politic. The primary one is the continued erosion of Merkel's support within the CDU/CSU bloc and among the electorate. This recently culminated, as Nigel Jones points out in his post, in Merkel's decision to step down as party leader, with her replacement to be selected at the CDU party conference in December. The fate of Horst Seehofer, Merkel's constant nemesis, seems to hang in the balance. He is presently the Minister of the Interior, Building and Community in Berlin's Grand Coalition, but his political demise as the CSU's most visible member of a failed government is constantly being predicted in the German media. There are recent reports of SPD members advocating a withdrawal by the party from the Grand Coalition. We should have a better idea by the New Year as to how these uncertainties will shake out, but until then, the Grand Coalition will continue to muddle through and avoid, as best it can, the sniping that it receives not only from within but also from without the coalition.


Financial Times, "Bavaria result rattles Merkel coalition," October 15, 2018, p.2, col.1

Financial Times, "Germany's Greens threaten SPD center-left dominance," October 15, 2018, p.2 col.3; Financial Times, "Bavaria poll result shakes Merkel seat of power," October 16, 2018, p.3, col.1.

Financial Times, "Merkel fights for future as voter anger grows," October 25, 2018, p.3, col. 1.

Financial Times, "German centre's collapse brings Merkel era to a close," October 30, 2018, p. 9, col.1.

JE comments:  Most informative, Pat:  Danke schön.  What is striking is that German voters are abandoning the two traditional "centrist" parties (Christian Democrats and Social Democrats) to embrace the extreme Right (AfD) and the (more or less extreme) Left (Greens).  Wasn't this the case in the waning years of Weimar?  Perhaps I'm overly alarmist.

The big question:  whether Merkel can stick it out for the final two years of her term.

The little question:  Isn't all "Schadenfreude" German?

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