The 2018 Bavarian state elections came to a close on October 14th, leaving the Green Party (die Grünen) and the AFD (Alternative for Germany), Germany’s nationalist right-wing party, victorious due to increases in votes from previous years and leading to massive losses for the CSU (Christian Social Union) party and the SPD (Social Democrats). While the rise of the AFD is worrisome, it is not as much a surprise as the serious blow suffered by the CSU in these elections. While at first glance it may seem worrying that the party has experienced its biggest lost since 1950, looking closer at the details of these elections, especially at the behaviour of the CSU, implies that this result may actually be promising, possibly inciting a needed political transition in Bavaria.
The CSU’s loss in votes is by no means a rejection of Angela Merkel, chancellor and the head of the CDU (Christian Democratic Union), the CSU’s sister party. Although CDU and CSU may be combined as a fraction in the German parliament, this does not make them one and the same. In fact, each have their own party leaders and programs. The CSU can only be voted for in Bavaria, while the CDU is represented in every state except for Bavaria.
The CSU has long been considered more conservative than CDU and this, according to Focus Online became increasingly apparent during the refugee crisis of 2015 and has since only increased. Just a few months ago in June 2018, Horst Seehofer, leader of the CSU, caused a massive conflict in parliament with his idea of refusing entry to refugees on the German border that had already looked for asylum in a different country, an idea that Merkel strongly opposed. So what does the CSU’s loss mean if not a rejection of the CDU and Angela Merkel?
I would interpret it as a promising change in the Bavarian population’s attitude towards the conservative agenda of the CSU. People are no longer impressed by the CSU’s emphasis on tradition and family and are wary of the chaos and conservatism that they seem to represent. As an article in Süddeutsche Zeitung explains much of the party’s decline can be attributed to the power struggles between head of the CSU, Horst Seehofer, and Minister President, Markus Söder, that threatened the further existence of the party. And, as alluded to before, the refugee crisis exposed a right-wing side to Markus Söder, reminiscent of the AFD, that also seemed to scare off voters.
Just the fact that the posters for the AFD use the slogan “We do what the CSU promises” seems to say it all. “They just repeated what the AfD said, and I don’t identify with them anymore” Thomas Steinleitner, a baker from Deggendorf, said in an interview with the Guardian.
So while the Bavarian elections do not necessarily represent a full decline in populism, considering that the AFD was successful in securing 10.2% of the vote, it does go to show that the Bavarian population is aware and worried about increasingly conservative and right-wing agendas being put into place and are taking the necessary measures to prevent this from happening, as the 72.5% turnout (the highest turnout in 40 years) seems to imply. Although the CSU remains the leading party with 37.2% of votes, seeing support of the party fall under 40% for the first time since 1954 may just be an indicator of the nearing end or perhaps reconfiguration of the CSU party as we know it.