MUNICH — The Bavarian wing of Angela Merkel’s center-right bloc suffered its worst result in nearly 70 years in a state election as voters abandoned Germany’s ruling parties for alternatives on both the left and right, sending a clear signal to Berlin that growing numbers of Germans are displeased with the country’s direction.
The Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, lost its absolute majority as more than one-fifth of its supporters defected, according to preliminary results. However, with 37.2 percent of the vote, the CSU, which has dominated Bavarian politics since World War II, still managed to defend first place, paving the way for it to build a coalition.
The larger question was what effect the election will have on the government in Berlin. At the least, the result delivered an unvarnished rebuke to the “grand coalition” between Merkel’s bloc and the Social Democrats (SPD), which has been beset by infighting and controversy since it took office in March. With its support diminished, there is growing doubt over whether the government will survive its full term until the fall of 2021, at least in its current form.
SPD Vice Chairman Ralf Stegner suggested the party needed to rethink its commitment to the coalition. “There’s no reason to hang on to the grand coalition at any price,” he tweeted, adding that the Bavarian election outcome showed the coalition’s “stability is dwindling.”
The big winners of the night were the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which debuted in a Bavarian election with 10.2 percent, and the Greens, which more than doubled its 2013 result to finish with 17.5 percent.
The two parties’ success underscored the ongoing polarization of German politics as well as the continued resonance of the 2015 refugee crisis. One-third of voters cited migration and the integration of foreigners as the biggest problem facing the state in an exit poll for German public television. While the AfD attracted many disgruntled former CSU supporters upset over Merkel’s liberal approach to asylum, the Greens drew in centrist voters put off by the CSU’s often-harsh rhetoric on migration.
Söder pain — and relief
Describing Sunday’s outcome as “painful,” Bavarian premier Markus Söder said his party accepted it “with humility.”
“The grand coalition is a challenge for us all,” he added.
The CSU hopes to form a center-right coalition with the Freie Wähler (Free Voters), a conservative movement that shares many of the CSU’s views. It finished in third place with 11.6 percent, benefiting from voter frustration with its incumbent rival.
A poor showing in Hesse at the end of the month could force Angela Merkel to relinquish the chairmanship of her party.
While the election was a disaster for the CSU, given its long record of success, most polls predicted an even worse outcome in the low 30s. That relief could help Söder, who took over as premier in March, keep his position. More than half of voters believe he’s doing a good job, according to exit polls, a result that should bolster his case to remain.
Less clear is whether his predecessor as premier and current CSU leader Horst Seehofer will survive. Many within the CSU blame Seehofer, who took over Germany’s interior ministry after stepping down as Bavarian premier, for the party’s crisis. He has been engaged in an often cantankerous feud with Merkel over migration policy, a dispute that nearly brought down the government over the summer and that remains a serious point of contention between the two erstwhile allies.
Munich sneezes, Berlin catches cold
While a Seehofer exit would certainly be welcomed by Merkel, it wouldn’t resolve the larger questions hanging over her government. The Bavarian result, which follows a flurry of recent polls suggesting that the grand coalition has lost its popular majority, is bound to fan speculation about Merkel’s own future as chancellor. She faces a further challenge at the end of October with another regional election in the state of Hesse, where her party, which leads the local government, faces steep losses. A poor showing in Hesse could force Merkel to relinquish the chairmanship of the CDU at a party congress in December, severely diminishing her power.
The biggest loser of the night was the center-left SPD, which imploded, dropping by more than half to just 9.7 percent. If confirmed, the result would be the worst-ever in a state election for Germany’s oldest political party, which is ceding many of its traditional supporters on the left to the Greens.
“It’s worse than expected,” Michael Schrodi, an SPD member of the federal parliament who was born and raised in Munich said, calling the result “disastrous.” He added: “It’s clear that it can’t continue like this.”
The SPD had not “kept pace with the times” and was “perhaps no longer interesting enough,” he said.
Three-quarters of Bavarian voters think the Social Democrats should try to renew themselves in opposition in Berlin.
Many voters complain the SPD has lost its profile under Merkel, who has co-opted and taken credit for various SPD initiatives over the years. In Bavaria, where the SPD had long been the No. 2 political force, 76 percent of voters believe the party should try to renew itself in opposition in Berlin, according to an exit poll for German public television.
The SPD initially resisted joining another grand coalition, after seeing its support dwindle significantly during its last term as part of a Merkel government. It eventually relented and since then its decline has accelerated, as the Bavarian election illustrated.
Not the economy, dummkopf
For the CSU, which many credit for transforming what was long an agrarian economy in Bavaria into one of Europe’s most successful industrial corridors, Sunday’s election offered a reminder that economic success alone doesn’t guarantee voter support.
Bavaria counts as Germany’s most prosperous region with an unemployment rate below 3 percent. Yet the conflicts that arose from the influx of refugees in 2015 threw the state’s political system out of kilter.
The CSU leadership decided to go toe-to-toe with the AfD on the question of migration. Though it was undoubtedly a subject of great concern to many, critics complained that the CSU focused too much on it, while giving short shrift to other issues on voters’ minds, such as affordable housing and education.
That second-guessing was on full display Sunday evening in the Bavarian state parliament, where representatives of all parties gathered to watch the results come in on television. CSU politicians and supporters sipped their beers with long faces.
Barbara Stamm, a popular CSU politician and the president of the Bavarian parliament, said the CSU had “overemphasized” the topic of migration and asylum.
“We let ourselves get pushed in that direction,” she said, alluding to the pressure from the AfD. “I always said, you can’t gain from the right what you will lose in the center. The results today suggest as much.”
Felix Mönius, a member of the influential CSU youth organization Junge Union, said that the party would need to change. “Making it more youthful can’t hurt,” he said.
Whatever comes next, “this election result has already changed Bavaria,” shouted Katharina Schulze, one of the Green party’s leaders.
“The results still show that you cannot govern in Bavaria without the CSU. We got away with a black eye.”
Inside the Green party’s parliamentary offices, green confetti rained from the ceiling as the results came in at 6 p.m. Party leaders Katharina Schulze and Ludwig Hartmann were greeted with whooping and thunderous applause.
Whatever comes next, “this election result has already changed Bavaria,” shouted Schulze, who was wearing a green dress.
The boast reflected the kind of bravado that made Schulze, who sometimes appeared on the campaign trail in a traditional dirndl, a media favorite. Despite the buzz surrounding their surge, the Greens appear destined to remain where they have been ever since they first joined the Bavarian parliament in 1986 – in opposition.
Judith Mischke contributed reporting.