In Bavaria on Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) lost its absolute majority, suffered its worst election result since 1950. But the vote delivered an ever bigger blow to Merkel's national coalition partner the Social Democrats. Euronews asks political analyst Leopold Traugott about what the results mean for Germany and Europe.
Euronews: What do you think is the most important aspect of the results of this election? In other words, which party’s score will have the greatest impact for Germany?
Leopold Traugott: The stark decline of the Social Democrats (SPD) is for me the key result. You may argue that by now we should be used to seeing them losing, but yesterday’s defeat has a special quality. The party’s vote actually halved, from 20.6% in 2013, to just 9.7%! This marks the party’s worst result in Bavaria since the 1930s, and is the first state parliament now where they have fallen below the symbolic 10% threshold in recent history - a painful exercise for a former Volkspartei (major party). Their decline is a symbol of Germany’s growing political fragmentation.
Their poor result is also important because the SPD is the party most likely to burst apart Germany’s governing ‘Grand Coalition’ (if it really gets that far). Not that such a move would necessarily help them solve their structural and strategic problems, but internal pressure to achieve some sort of drastic change is likely to keep growing.
Euronews: What about the impact of this vote on the future of the European Union?
Leopold Traugott: The direct impact of this vote on the future of the European Union will be rather limited. Nevertheless, it serves as an important bellwether of problems to come. The Bavarian election is another step on Germany’s path to political fragmentation (Dutchification, as some call it), with the traditional heavyweights CSU and SPD both losing badly, while their contenders, the far-right AfD and left-liberal Greens, are rapidly gaining ground. As Germany’s governing parties are fighting to stop their own decline, they will have less energy and political capital to spare for European challenges, for example to sell necessary but unpopular Eurozone reforms to their electorate.
In addition, in the short term, should German Interior Minister and CSU leader Horst Seehofer get the boot as punishment for his party’s poor election result, this may lead to minor readjustments in Germany’s position in the European migration debate. After all, he was a key driver behind Berlin pushing for a more restrictive approach.
Euronews: Given the results, will the Bavarian election have an influence on Angela Merkel’s political future? What should she do now, after the elections in Bavaria and before the regional elections in other federal states in the coming months?
Leopold Traugott: The results will inevitably lead to a new round of discussions about whether Germany’s coalition government can go on like this, including the question of whether Angela Merkel still is the best person to lead that government. It is in and of itself however, unlikely to shift the goalposts of this debate. We should wait and see how state elections in Hesse later this month play out - current polls predict painful losses for Merkel’s Christian Democrats. The crucial discussions about policy and leadership changes both within her own party and within her coalition partner, the SPD, will likely take place after that.
Euronews: Three years ago, Angela Merkel temporarily opened the German border to migrants. Many of them came to Bavaria. Did this phenomenon of massive migration have an impact on the outcome of the vote, particularly with regard to Alternative für Deutschland?
Leopold Traugott: Much of the rise of the AfD is of course due to the European migration crisis of 2015, and the way the German government dealt with it. It is interesting however that the AfD this weekend received a lower share of the Bavarian vote (10.3%) than it did during last year’s general election (12.4%). Nevertheless, the party’s results in yesterday’s vote are still comparatively high for Western German standards (the AfD tends to score much better in the East). Part of the reason may lie with the fact that Bavaria acted as the point of entry for most asylum seekers who came to Germany over the Balkan route, and even for many of those coming via Italy. As such, Bavarian citizens had an unusually high ‘exposure’ to the crisis.
Euronews: What do you think are the other factors that determined the vote outcome?
Leopold Traugott: One of the key phenomena of this vote is how the Green Party managed to double its vote by poaching voters from the two major parties, the CSU and the SPD. It is little surprise that they took votes from the SPD, since both parties traditionally share many policy positions. But it is interesting how they managed to attract traditionally more conservative CSU voters, and presented themselves as a centrist, bourgeois alternative to a CSU drifting too far to the right. (I have previously written on this topic here).
Ultimately, we also should not underestimate the extent to which voting decisions were driven by local issues, with citizens worrying particularly about education (which is dealt with at state, not federal level in Germany), the environment, and affordable housing. What is happening in Berlin certainly has had its impact, but is not necessarily a priority for every voter.
Leopold Traugott is a policy analyst at the think tank Open Europe.
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the authors.