By Cas Mudde
Yesterday saw the most important elections in Europe before the European elections of May 2019. No, not in a country, but in a state, the state of Bavaria, in the South of Germany, to be exact. The results have important ramifications for the state of Bavaria, the country of Germany, and the continent of Europe.
For over a year now, Bavaria, and more specifically the dominant party there, the Christian Social Union (CSU), has held Germany and the EU in its grip. After losing disproportionately against the radical right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the 2017 federal elections – the AfD got its best result in West Germany in Bavaria – the CSU responded by moving even further to the right. Having already opposed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “Willkommenkultur” (Welcome Culture) during the so-called “refugee crisis” of 2015, the CSU simply copied the AfD policies and rhetoric after the electoral defeat, even further blurring the boundaries between mainstream and radical right.
As polls had been indicating for some months, this strategy didn’t help. While the CSU became more popular among AfD voters, they didn’t move (back). At the same time, the CSU became less popular among most other voters, including its own. In the end, the CSU lost its hegemony in the state, which it has governed alone for decades, dropping from 47.7 percent to “just” 37.2 percent.
Interestingly, it lost as much to the AfD as to the Greens, both 180,000 voters, as well as 170,000 voters to the conservative-liberal “Free Voters.” The CSU lost disproportionately among workers (probably to AfD) and youths (probably to Greens). The big winners of the elections were the Greens, which came in second with 17.5 percent of the vote, an increase of 8.9 percent. They won primarily from the center-left SPD (210,000 voters), but also from the CSU (180,000 voters) and non-voters (120,000).
If we look at the shifts in terms of ideological blocs, rather than individual parties, the elections showed much less change. Neither the Left nor the Right bloc won much. The left bloc of Greens, center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and radical The Left, lost together roughly one percent of the vote, as the Greens’ big wins were offset by the SPD’s massive losses (falling to single digits, i.e. 9.7 percent, a loss of 10.9 percent!). At the same time, the radical right, i.e. CSU and AfD, almost perfectly equalled each other out, respectively losing 10.5 percent and winning 10.2 percent of the vote.
The modest gains were in the centre-right, i.e. the liberal-conservative Free Democratic Party (FDP) and particularly the conservative-liberal Free Voters (FW), who together gained 4.4 percent of the vote. What remains, as again is the case in most of (Western) Europe, is a much more fragmented party system, in which coalition building will be very challenging.
While the CSU has lost its hegemony, it is still by far the biggest party in Bavaria, and will undoubtedly be the senior partner in the future coalition government. There are three parties that can give the CSU a majority – FW, Greens and SPD – but the first makes the most sense. A coalition with SPD would have a majority of just four seats and would mean electoral suicide for the Social Democrats. A CSU-Greens coalition would have the largest majority, but is ideologically more challenging. While FW differs in many ways from CSU, they and their voters are more right-wing and share, to some extent, a concern about conservative socio-cultural issues, including immigration. Whether 9 seats is a comfortable enough majority for a coalition with an untested, and quite highly specific, regional party, will be the main concern of the CSU.
Whatever the coalition outcome, the CSU has gambled and lost. Its shameless embrace of the radical right agenda has prevented neither a historic loss nor the parliamentary entrance of the AfD – although that party did lose more than 2 percent of the vote compared to its score in Bavaria in the 2017 federal elections. This will have consequences for the key players, German Minister of Interior Horst Seehofer and Bavarian Prime Minister Martin Söder. To govern in a coalition, the CSU will have to moderate, in tone and substance, which requires new leaders.
This will also have consequences for the German government, in which the CSU has more functioned as an opposition party than a coalition partner. Its electoral defeat will also strength more moderate voices in the CDU, which is in the midst of the succession struggle as the Merkel era is slowly but steadily coming to an end.
The real silent majority
Finally, there is a crucial European dimension. Manfred Weber, a prominent CSU politician, is the frontrunner in the Spitzenkandidat primary of the mainstream right European People’s Party (EPP). As a key architect of the recent Rechtsruck of the EPP, and main protector within both the EPP and EU of the radical right Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, he recently turned on Orbán, by supporting the European Parliament’s triggering of Article 7 against Hungary.
Weber will interpret the Bavarian results as a confirmation of his political intuition, i.e. that the heydays of the normalization of the radical right are over, and will continue his political road back to the centre-right. One can only hope that other mainstream right parties and politicians draw the same lesson from the Bavarian elections, as well as the massive anti-racism demonstration in Berlin, and will break the radical right spell.
Like the Bavarians, most Europeans believe that the mainstream (right) parties have devoted too much attention to the immigration issue, at the expense of more important issues. It’s time to start remedying this neglect, and give the voice back to the real silent majority.
Cas Mudde is the Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF Professor at the School of Public and International Affairs, University of Georgia. He is a Guardian US columnist and tweets at @casmudde.
Opinions expressed in View articles do not represent those of Euronews