Sunday’s electoral earthquake in Bavaria changed the political landscape in one of Germany’s most populous states. But its shockwaves also threaten to convulse the delicate edifice of Angela Merkel’s power.
Ms Merkel’s coalition was already looking tired and fractious before voters in Bavaria shellacked two of the three parties that make up her government in an election that has stunned Germany’s political establishment. Now it looks even weaker.
That has profound implications for the future of Ms Merkel herself. “Inevitably the result in Bavaria will raise fresh doubts about whether she can survive as chancellor,” said Heinrich Oberreuter, head of the Passau Journalism Institute.
Sunday’s poll saw the Christian Social Union, Ms Merkel’s conservative Bavarian ally, suffer its worst result since 1950. The party, which long enjoyed absolute majorities in Bavaria and has ruled the state for the past 60 years, crashed to 36 per cent, down from 48 per cent five years ago.
But for the Social Democrats (SPD), Ms Merkel’s junior coalition partner, the outcome was, if anything, even worse. It came in at fourth place, with just 9.6 per cent of the vote — half what it managed five years ago. Meanwhile the Greens surged ahead, garnering 18 per cent and supplanting the SPD as the party of Bavaria’s liberal, booming cities.
The election cemented the Greens’ status as the new rising force in German politics. But the big question is where this leaves Ms Merkel. For longtime observers of German politics, the outlook for one of Europe’s longest-serving leaders is unenviable.
“What we’ve seen in Bavaria is a massive slump in two big mainstream parties, and that can’t be good for the grand coalition, which was already showing signs of erosion,” said Christine Landfried, a political scientist at Hamburg university.
In some respects, the result in Bavaria could suit Ms Merkel’s purposes. It could, for example, trigger the downfall of Horst Seehofer, CSU chairman and interior minister, who has proved such a thorn in the chancellor’s side. It was his frontal attack on Ms Merkel over asylum policy earlier this year that nearly brought down the government. Mr Seehofer is already being singled out as a scapegoat for the CSU’s election debacle and could be gone within weeks. If that happens, Berlin will heave a sigh of relief.
But the worry for Ms Merkel is that the CSU’s dismal performance in Bavaria could have a knock-on effect on the elections in another state — Hesse, in the west — in two weeks’ time. Hesse is governed by Ms Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, in coalition with the Greens. Should the CDU lose, some in Berlin wonder whether the chancellor might be forced to resign as leader of the party.
But even if Hesse remains in Christian Democrat hands, the grand coalition faces strong headwinds in the coming months that will test its resilience to the limit. The SPD has already blamed the debacle in Bavaria on months of infighting in Berlin, particularly the explosive CDU/CSU row over the summer.
Sunday’s result was “a clear signal from Bavaria to Berlin that the government parties have performed really poorly in the last few months, . . . and argued too much”, said the SPD’s general secretary, Lars Klingbeil. “I hope everyone understands that signal.”
But the result in Bavaria will be grist to the mill of those Social Democrats who believe the party’s only hope of salvation lies in quitting Ms Merkel’s government and renewing itself in opposition. A reluctant partner in a conservative-led coalition now has even less incentive to stay put.
The CSU, too, remains a wild card. The party faces weeks of navel-gazing over the root causes of its election drubbing. Some are already blaming Mr Seehofer and the Bavarian prime minister, Markus Söder, for their decision to escalate the dispute with the CDU over the summer and embrace a harder line on immigration — a clear attempt to outflank the far-right Alternative for Germany. The strategy backfired: horrified by the CSU’s populism, thousands of its voters switched to the Greens. Meanwhile, CSU voters who felt it was not really doing enough to curb immigration, despite all the tough-sounding rhetoric and barbs at Ms Merkel, voted AfD.
Others might disagree with that analysis, though. “Some will say the CSU needs to become more moderate and sensible, but others will say it should become more rightwing and radical,” said Konstantin Vössing, a political scientist at Humboldt University in Berlin. “The likelihood is that this argument will drag on for months within the CSU.”
That, again, could have implications for the grand coalition. “The hope in Berlin is that the CSU will be as meek as a lamb and lick its wounds,” said Jürgen Falter of Mainz university. But the opposite could also happen: it could also come to the conclusion that “it must make its mark and become more distinctly Bavarian”.
“That would inject fresh strife into the grand coalition,” he said.
Even it the turmoil in the CSU and SPD dies down, the results of the Bavarian election hold a lesson which should ring alarm bells in Berlin. “There has been a massive loss of confidence in the political elites, and that is hitting the big mainstream parties hardest of all,” said Ms Landfried. “They have got used to always being in power, always forming governing coalitions. And a lot of voters just don’t accept that any more.”