The Bavarian CSU has suffered a historic drubbing in state elections. The result will have consequences at a national level as well, says DW's Rosalia Romaniec.
This election changes a lot, and not just in Bavaria. The decades of the Christian Social Union (CSU) managing to sell itself successfully to voters as a Christian, conservative yet socially aware party appear to be over. A slide from almost 48 percent to 37.2 percent — that's something that can't simply be shrugged off. It's a historic defeat.
It should be noted from the start that that this fiasco for Bavaria's main party is not collateral damage. The CSU's poor showing was not the result of other parties' success. The leadership of the party has only itself to blame for its landslide loss.
Winners to the left and right
Perhaps the real surprise of this election is the success scored by the Greens. At 17.5 percent, they doubled their proportion of the vote in Bavaria and are well on the way to becoming a new major party, at a national level as well.
Many CSU voters in Bavaria defected to the Greens because the party seems to take the Christian aspect (specifically love-thy-neighbor in matters of migration) more seriously than the conservatives who have it as part of their name. In particular, CSU leader Horst Seehofer, who is also Germany's interior minister, seems to have forgotten about it. But many voters still seem unwilling to be persuaded that the fear of "Islamization" should outweigh reason or compassion.
The other winner, the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), is no surprise. Its entry now into the 15th of 16 German state parliaments is in keeping with a Germany-wide trend. It is bad enough that they received 10 percent of the vote — though there were fears they could have reached 20 percent — but the result does not necessarily have to be seen as a surge to the right. It is a vote in protest of the mistakes made by the CSU.
And the biggest of these was breaking taboos on its right flank. For decades, the Bavarian party followed a maxim of its father figure, Franz-Josef Strauss, who once said there must be no "democratically legitimate party" in German politics to the right of the CSU. That was important at a national level as well: As part of the bloc with its sister party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the CSU fulfilled a political function as the most conservative force. This worked for decades, until its leaders panicked and started copying the AfD's policies in 2018. By the time the mistake was noticed, its chairman — a know-it-all and opponent of Chancellor Merkel — had already done too much damage. Mr Seehofer, you took too much of a gamble! Today, you are the loser and bear responsibility for the fact.
The Bavarian turmoil hits Berlin
And Seehofer's rampage to the right has damaged the entire conservative bloc. Not to mention the drama with the coalition partner on the national level, the Social Democrats (SPD), who in Bavaria slid from 20 percent to under 10. The result makes the SPD's internal crisis even more apparent. When a party that is co-governing in Berlin experiences such a heavy loss in an important state election, consequences would seem inevitable.
The SPD is not managing to shake off its passive role. It must keep its head and create its own distinctive political profile. But that is easier said than done, as its leaders are facing resistance from within its own ranks — from those who want an end to the grand coalition. Tensions and differences are to be expected not only within the party, but also in the Merkel government.
Now, Germany is looking toward the next state election — voters in Hesse go to the polls in two weeks' time. If the conservative CDU/CSU bloc and the SPD both suffer heavy losses there (polls currently put both parties around 7 percent down on their 2013 hauls), the coalition could really start crumbling. Just a few weeks after the Hessian polls, the CDU will decide on whether to re-elect Angela Merkel as party leader. The election in Bavaria has done nothing to bolster her position or her government.