Like in any established democracy, German elections are exercises in traditions and rituals. One party wins, another loses, and politicians trot out the same old chestnuts for some quick TV sound bites just after the first exit polls are released.
In Germany’s multi-party system there’s also the coloured-bar-graph waiting game, as the main public broadcaster ARD shows just how many seats the country’s four or five of main parties have garnered in parliament or a state legislature. Which bar will come first? The black of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives or the red of the Social Democrats? Did the red bar shrink and the black one grow? Where are the Greens and what about the garish yellow of the pro-market Free Democrats?
Sunday evening was no different during a state election in Bavaria that is widely being heralded as both “historic” and a “watershed” in one of Europe’s wealthiest regions.
However, if you don’t happen to be a dork with an unnatural interest in German politics like myself, you might have been confused seeing Bavaria’s conservatives, the Christian Social Union (CSU), winning the election handily – yet acting like losers.
“This is a painful and difficult day for the CSU,” party leader Erwin Huber said, referring to the worst election result since 1954.
Huh? With 43.4 percent didn’t CSU pull more than double the share of the vote of their closest political rivals the centre-left Social Democrats? Aren’t the conservatives almost certain to continue governing the state as they have throughout the post-war era?
Yes, but the rather spoiled CSU – a peculiar regional manifestation of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – has become so accustomed to having crushing absolute majorities in Bavaria that the party is treating the idea of forming a coalition government like some sort of political Armageddon. This is all the more remarkable because two-party coalitions are generally the rule in German politics due to the country’s system of proportional representation.
In any other democracy – on the state or federal level – it would be highly problematic for one party to have held onto power for as long as the CSU has. The only other example that readily springs to mind is Japan’s LDP, which has led the country with only short interruptions since World War II.
To be sure, Bavaria has prospered on the CSU’s half-century watch. Once an agricultural backwater, the state has become one of Germany’s richest and is now home to many of the country’s biggest companies. The party has also successfully played itself up to be the proud keeper of the Bavarian heritage that supposedly makes the state so distinct from the rest of Germany.
For Americans visitors, I often describe Bavaria as mixture of Texas and Alabama dressed up in lederhosen. The Free State of Bavaria likes to tout its history as a sovereign kingdom as much as the Lone Star state talks up its time as an independent republic. But Germany’s deep south also has a similar strain of cultural conservatism found in places like Alabama.
And voters have rewarded the CSU’s combination of forward-looking economic success and tribute to Bavarian tradition with their loyalty for decades. But now Bavarian exceptionalism appears to be coming to an end.
Just like in the rest of Germany, the large political parties are shedding supporters in favour of smaller niche outfits like the Greens, the pro-market Liberals, and hard-line socialist Left party.
A survey was recently published showing that Germans overwhelmingly supported the idea of democracy, but are rather disgruntled with its the day to day application. And that means they are looking for political solutions outside of the mainstream parties like the centre-right CDU/CSU and centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Certainly, the flip side of CSU winning while acting like losers was the SPD’s worst Bavarian election result ever – taking a paltry 18.6 percent of the vote – yet the party members reacted as if they’d just won the election. I hate to break it to Franz Maget, the SPD’s Bavarian boss, but he is not likely to become state premier anytime soon.
The bruised and battered CSU will continue to govern Bavaria – most likely with the FDP as its junior coalition partner – and both the state and the conservatives will be the better for it. Shedding a whopping 17 percent of the vote from the last election is bound to shake up the CSU’s calcified party leadership and make it more responsive to the interests of the people it has so long represented.
That’s good for Bavarian democracy and ultimately beneficial to the longevity of a party that can no longer take its permanent grip on power in Munich for granted.