Hubert Aiwanger, the Bavarian economy minister currently caught in a virulent scandal over an antisemitic leaflet he may or may not have written decades ago as a student, is already well-known as a combative political leader with a liking for populist rhetoric.
But making mocking references to the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps, even at age 17, is seen as unacceptable for a deputy leader of one of Germany's largest states. The Süddeutsche Zeitung scoop has plunged the Bavarian coalition government into a crisis, and it could scarcely have come at a worse time: With just six weeks to go before Bavaria elects its new parliament, the outrage is threatening Aiwanger's recent popularity.
The 52-year-old is head of the Free Voters (Freie Wähler or FW), a right-wing party that is only relevant in Bavaria, where it has been the junior partner in the government coalition with the center-right Christian Social Union (CSU) since 2018.
Free Voters and the CSU
The two parties are natural political allies. Both make a virtue of protecting traditional Bavarian culture while offering a mix of free-market policies and socially conservative values. But there are notable differences: Though the FW favors reducing state debts and simplifying tax regulations, its manifesto also calls for strong banking regulations as well as more investment in education, particularly kindergartens and schools.
What makes the FW distinct comes down to its origins. Following its founding in 1960s, the Free Voters spent decades simply as a collection of local organizations, only putting forward candidates in district council elections.
It began fielding candidates in Bavarian state elections in the late 1990s. Despite officially forming a national party in 2009, it still likes to frame itself as a locally rooted alternative to political party structures with the credo "independent, fact-based, close to citizens."
This has borne fruit now that the party is in government: The FW (and Aiwanger himself) remain very popular in Bavaria's rural areas.
From farmer's son to dominant party figure
Aiwanger, a farmer's son who studied agricultural engineering, has been a major figure in the FW's rise. He joined the Free Voters in 2002, becoming their Bavarian leader in 2006. He established himself as the party's dominant figure, thanks mainly to its success in the 2008 Bavarian state election when the FW won its first parliamentary seats.
More recently, despite his party's insistence on pragmatism, Aiwanger has been scoring the most points by old-fashioned right-wing rhetoric. He has consistently demanded more restrictions on immigration and, when fights at Berlin swimming pools made national headlines earlier this summer, took the opportunity to rail against young men from migrant communities.
Aiwanger has embraced the most tried and tested populist tactic: create a headline with a liberal-baiting soundbite, then claim it has been quoted out of context. In 2019, he told an international hunting and shooting conference: "I am convinced that Bavaria and Germany would be safer if every decent man and woman were allowed to have a knife in his or her pocket, and we would lock up all serious criminals."
As the inevitable media furor unfolded, he claimed he had merely pointed out the impracticality of knife bans.
Similarly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, he was accused of mimicking anti-vaxxer rhetoric by warning against what he called an "apartheid discussion" between the vaccinated and unvaccinated. That earned him a rebuke from State Premier Markus Söder.
Baiting the 'elites'
Most notoriously, Aiwanger garnered national attention in June 2023 when he told a rally in the Bavarian town of Erding protesting the federal government's heating law: "Now the point has been reached where finally the silent vast majority of this country has to take back democracy and say to those in Berlin: 'You must have your asses open up there!'" ("Den Arsch offen haben" is a vulgar phrase which means having gone crazy.)
This triggered calls for his resignation, with many observers arguing that the speech effectively questioned the legitimacy of Germany's democratic system. Again, the economy minister denied that this was what he was saying.
Some critics also suggested that, by demonizing the "elites" in the federal government in Berlin, Aiwanger was borrowing tactics that have worked well for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The AfD is enjoying a surge in polls across Germany, and the latest surveys show the FW and the AfD in a tight race for second place in Bavaria, with the AfD currently leading on around 15% to the FW's 13%.
Aiwanger likes to insist that, if it wasn't for his interventions, the AfD would be even stronger in Bavaria. And, for all his far-right talking points, his political positions since coming to power in 2018 have often proven more moderate. He is, for instance, in favor of building more wind farms in Bavaria, something the AfD bitterly opposes. Sometimes his populist bark sounds harsher than the political bite.
Edited by: Rina Goldenberg
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