Bavaria's Regional Earthquake Causes Tremors in Berlin

Published: 16 October 2018
Author: Patrick Utz
Bavaria’s long-dominant party, the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), has reached its worst election result in 60 years. As well as causing a headache for Angela Merkel, argues Patrick Utz, this political earthquake reveals Bavaria’s predicament between regionalism and populism,.
Bavaria, Germany’s second largest Land by population, has a remarkable track record of political continuity. For over half a century, the Christian-conservative CSU has almost uninterruptedly obtained absolute majorities in regional elections, and has been able to govern without coalition partners. When Bavarians went to the polls on 14 October 2018 to elect their regional parliament, however, the CSU’s vote share got reduced to 37.2%. The Social Democrat SPD suffered similarly severe losses and obtained 9.7%. In contrast, the Greens (17.5%), the conservative Free Voters (FW, 11.6%), the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD, 10.2%), and the liberals (FDP, 5.1%) all could increase their share of votes.
For regional politics in Bavaria, this means that the CSU now has to govern in a coalition for only the second time in over five decades. The ideologically similar FW are reported to be the CSU’s most likely future partners. Yet, what brought the CSU’s hegemony in Bavaria to such an abrupt end? And what does this break with political traditions in one Germany’s wealthiest Länder mean for politics at other levels of government?
Traditionally, the CSU has played a ‘double role’. On the one hand, it is a regional party that claims to defend the particularities of Bavarian identity. On the other hand, the CSU has been a regular participant in coalition governments at the federal level. The party only stands for elections in Bavaria, while its sister party in the other German Länder, the Christian Democrat Union (CDU), does not compete in elections in that region. At the federal level, the two parties form a joint parliamentary group, and so far the CDU has never entered federal government without its Bavarian partners (even though the latter’s votes would not always have been required). This position has helped the CSU to act as a populist proponent of regional particularism, and as a serious policy-maker at all levels of government at the same time.
The relationship between the CSU and the CDU has never been without tensions. However, in recent years rows over immigration have become particularly divisive. The CSU’s chairman and Federal Minister of the Interior, Horst Seehofer, has been a determined critic of Angela Merkel’s pro-immigration Willkommenskultur. In July this year, Seehofer’s plans to curtail immigration culminated in a severe government crisis that brought Berlin’s coalition close to collapse. Mr Seehofer’s allegedly irresponsible style of government reveals a more deep-seated dilemma for the CSU. The rise of the populist right AfD has fundamentally undermined the CSU’s self-ascription as the ‘most rightist party within the democratic spectrum’. Many in the CSU believe that Angela Merkel’s liberal approach to immigration and other cultural issues has opened a window of opportunity for the AfD – at the expense of the CSU’s electoral fortunes. 
In this new situation, the CSU sits uneasy between its regionalist-populist tradition, and its role as a long-serving party in government. So far, the party’s strategy has been to strengthen its right-wing populist profile. This might have deferred the rise of the AfD to some degree. Yet, the CSU’s shift to the right has come at the cost of severe tensions with its partners in the CDU, and has jeopardized the CSU’s image as a guarantor of political stability. If the CSU continues to adhere to overly populist positions, it puts the Grand Coalition at the federal level seriously at risk. After all, neither Angela Merkel’s CDU, nor the crisis-torn SPD are likely to accept further provocations by Mr Seehofer and his followers.
In light of the CSU’s electoral setback and the remarkably good result of the pro-immigration Greens, however, the CSU might abandon its historical claim to cover the entire right-of-centre political spectrum and opt for more centrist positions. This would retain the party’s reputation as a reliable partner in government and ease cooperation within the federal coalition in Berlin. Renouncing the party’s populist rhetoric will also increase the CSU’s Manfred Weber’s credibility as a truly pro-European frontrunner for the European People’s Party in next year’s EP election. Ultimately, the CSU’s return to pragmatism, helped by the now irrevocable need to compromise in a coalition at the regional level, would again make the party a trustworthy defender of Bavaria’s utilitarian interests.