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Bavaria election: Populism dominates campaign

Ben Knight Munich
October 3, 2023

One of Germany's most affluent states is heading to the polls with CSU State Premier Markus Söder desperate to maintain his current coalition. DW reports from Munich.

Oktoberfest dancers in traditional Bavarian dirndls
Beer tents are not just for partying, they're also Bavarian politicians' natural habitatImage: imageBROKER/picture alliance

Markus Söder has a certain way of entering the room at his campaign events: The Bavarian state premier doesn't appear directly on the stage, but emerges from the back of the hall, working his way through the crowd to the front like a boxer entering a ring, shaking as many hands as he can on the way. He might be trailing an entourage of security guards, assistants, and sometimes a cameraman, but he's a man rising from among his people.

Söder performed this entrance again at a campaign event in late September in Ebersberg, outside Munich, as he entered the home straight of his re-election campaign. Then he delivered what was not so much a speech as a 60-minute stand-up routine — a collection of well-honed "bits," which he evidently no longer needs to read off any paper, and which he picks to suit the crowd.

On this particular night, the jokes come at the expense of climate activists, the federal Social Democrat Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, and of course that perennial butt of all jokes among conservative German politicians — the Green Party and their supposed love of banning things that Bavarians love: Sausages, candy, shooting wolves that kill livestock.

Markus Söder shaking hands in the crowd
Markus Söder makes sure to shake as many hands as possible as he pushes through the audience at his campaign eventsImage: Ben Knight/DW

Söder has long presented himself as the consummate populist — and he has decided that food is the way to the voters' hearts. Among the freebies distributed to the Ebersberg crowd was a cookbook based on Söder's most successful social media hashtag: #Söderisst (Söder eats).

What might seem like just a document of his dinners also underscores his basic message: Söder loves Bavarian food because Söder is a Bavarian to his bones, and his Christian Social Union (CSU), to all intents and purposes, is Bavaria. "A strong CSU means a strong Bavaria," he likes to say, and on this occasion can't resist following it with a dig at the federal government: "And there's nothing that Berlin loves more than a weak Bavaria!"

Lifelong CSU voter Josef Götz, dressed in traditional Bavarian costume, laughed this off as an echo of 200 years of inner-German rivalry: "Berlin needs us, but doesn't want us to have a say," he told DW. "That's why there'll never be a Bavarian chancellor!"

CSU voter Josef Götz
Lifelong CSU voter Josef Götz likes what Markus Söder is doing for BavariaImage: Ben Knight/DW

Free Voters: A new populist on the block

Recently, though, Söder has found himself outflanked in the populism game by his coalition partner: Deputy State Premier Hubert Aiwanger, state economy minister and head of the Free Voters (Freie Wähler), a relatively new party that prides itself on grassroots focus.

The CSU/FW coalition looks easy enough on paper: There is little separating the two parties in terms of ideology or policy — they are both center-right, socially conservative, and economically liberal.

But the relationship has grown more strained since the last Bavarian state election in 2018, when Söder chose to form a coalition with Aiwanger rather than the Greens. Since then, Aiwanger's confidence has grown. The scandals over his alleged far-right sympathies in his school days and his rhetoric about "taking back democracy" have only swelled his polling numbers.

Aiwanger insists that what he calls his "beer tent speeches" only represent a fraction of the speeches he gives. "But part of beer tent culture is exaggerating, producing a few thigh-slapping gags that animate people to laughter, and a few — yes —cheeky claims about the political competitors," he told DW. "This beer tent exchange is a Bavarian tradition that a lot of outsiders don't understand. The result is that when a northern German gives a speech in a Bavarian beer tent they fail spectacularly after three minutes."

Aiwanger giving a speechi in a beertent on September 3, 2023
Hubert Aiwanger's 'beer tent speeches' are extremely popular with his supportersImage: Frank Hoermann/SvenSimon/picture alliance

Then, deploying one of his own methods, Aiwanger went on to claim that when Chancellor Olaf Scholz gives speeches in Bavaria "no one shows up." To Aiwanger, culture wars appear to come down to regional differences: "Northern Germany is just a bit more stand-offish and reserved than Bavaria. I was once in the state parliament Brandenburg and I thought I was at a Protestant church sermon."

Nor does he worry about what such rhetoric might be doing to the state of political debate in Germany: "Believe it or not, I don't see myself as a populist, because I see a populist as someone who speaks against his convictions and uses untruths just to kick up a storm."

Resisting 'the ratcatchers'

Some critics say that this is exactly what Aiwanger does — not least with his now notorious speech in the small town of Erding, Bavaria, in which he condemned the government's planned heating law to phase out fossil fuels by demanding that the "silent majority" "take back democracy." And it has worked for him: Latest polls put the FW at 16%, in second place behind only Söder's CSU, on 36.5%. That result would be a significant improvement on the 11.6% the FW achieved in 2018.

Traditionally, center-left parties are weak in Bavaria. This year, the Greens are polling on a similar level to the Free Voters and the AfD: at around 15%. But Scholz's Social Democrats are consistently polling at below 10%, and the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP), the smallest member of the federal coalition government, looks set for yet another regional defeat and may fall below the 5% threshold for representation.

Germany's far-right AfD expected to make gains in Bavaria

Söder, for whom anything below 35% would be a total disaster, is wary of losing even more CSU voters to the right. He has said that he intends to continue working with Aiwanger. That might make sense as a campaign tactic but could be damaging in the long term — it may well embolden the Free Voters to demand more than three of the 15 cabinet posts it currently holds.

Markus Söder does not want to be remembered as the CSU leader who squandered his party's grip on Bavaria. And yet his authority remains unchallenged within the CSU, and his popularity is certainly intact in Ebersberg.

Here at least, the appetite for right-wing extremism was limited: It was notable that the loudest applause of the evening came when Söder condemned the far-right extremists of the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Sabine Maier, a CSU voter in the crowd, dismissed the AfD as "rat-catchers," and said the CSU had no choice but to ally with the Free Voters. "A coalition with the Greens has been ruled out, and so has one with the AfD, thank God, so all that remains is to continue with the Free Voters." For Söder, that might mean another dance with the devil of populist rhetoric.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight