Why Bavaria does politics differently to the rest of Germany
When it comes to politics and culture, Bavaria is a German state like no other. But beyond the usual social stereotypes, its love affair with the conservatives is far more complex than it appears, writes Nic Houghton.
For many political parties within Germany, winning 37 percent of the vote in a single state would be cause for celebration and the popping of champagne corks.
In Bavaria, this very same result, achieved by the CSU - the sister party of the CDU - during the Bavarian state elections in 2018, was met with headlines about a historic humiliation.
The champagne remained on ice. Bavaria’s largest party was in no mood to celebrate. Their leader, Markus Söder, described the election as a “difficult day” despite the fact that his party had beaten all others by a considerable margin and was in the process of forming a new government.
Why was Bavaria’s largest party so despondent?
Well, since 1954, the CSU had never gained less than 40 percent of the vote. It was a hot streak that lasted decades. What looks like success in other German states looks very much like failure in Bavaria.
The normal measurements of politics don’t really apply in Bavaria. It’s just another of the many points of difference between Germany’s most southern state and the 15 other Bundesländer.
It’s a common joke that Bavaria has more in common with Austria than it does with the rest of the country, which is odd given that many of the most popular stereotypes about Germany originate there.
List three things everyone knows about Germany. Go on, I’ll wait. Sausages, beer and lederhosen? Maybe you’re thinking of Oktoberfest? The mountains maybe? Well, barring the sausages, which are a staple across the country, all the others are firmly Bavarian in origin. Bavaria is Germany to the outside world, within Germany Bavaria is an aberration.
No other state has a party that advocates specifically for their own interests at the national level in the way the CSU advocates for Bavaria.
For so long the Bavarian voter has enjoyed nothing more than Weißwurst, Weizen and voting for the CSU, but things may be changing.
If the 2018 election result was met with shock, recent polling in Bavaria for the upcoming elections have been met with full throated bellows of terror.
"O'Zapft is!" A man pours beer at Munich's Viktualienmarkt during Octoberfest, or 'Wiesn', as the locals call it. The most vivid symbols of German life and culture - for foreigners - often come from Bavaria. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth
If recent Umfragen (polls) are to be believed, the CSU may well see their percentage of the vote fall below 30 percent. This would be a political earthquake, a sign that the CSU are no longer the party OF Bavaria, but rather just another party IN Bavaria.
The worst case scenario for the CDU's Bavarian sisters would be to come in under the five percent threshold needed to enter parliament. To clear that hurdle nationwide, they generally need at least 31 or 32 percent of the Bavarian vote - depending on turnout - which is looking less and less likely as time goes on.
If they don't manage it this time, they can still make it by getting at least three of their candidates directly elected in the state (the other route to entering parliament if parties don't get the necessary five percent). That looks almost certain to happen. But getting in through the side door would undoubtedly send a chill down the necks of the CSU's grandees - and those in the CDU who rely on their support in parliament.
The blame game
When political parties start haemorrhaging votes, it’s traditional to look for someone or something to blame. If the CSU is one thing, it’s traditional, and Markus Söder and his supporters have come up with various explanations.
Some of the blame has fallen on the shoulder of the unpopular Armin Laschet, CDU & CSU chancellor candidate. Others have pointed to Markus Söder’s approach to the pandemic, which saw Bavaria adopt some of the toughest restrictions in Germany, from mask mandates to curfews.
We’ll have to wait until the exit polls on Sunday, but if the CSU do drop below 30 percent it will continue a downward trend that’s not only been playing out in national politics. Bavaria’s state elections have also seen the CSU vote fall from the high of 60 percent in 2008 to 47 percent in 2018.
Who's to blame? Lackadaisical Laschet or Söder with his strict lockdown rules? Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel
Bavaria has always been the state of tradition and conservatism, but as the polls show, it may well be far more liberal than people think. This has certainly been my experience. Through work I’ve met hundreds of Bavarians from various backgrounds and I can count on my hands the ones who would neatly confirm to the Bavarian stereotype.
Sure, many of them voted and possibly still vote for the CSU but that doesn’t necessarily equate to the conservative mindset that many may think.
Some Bavarians vote for the CSU simply because they know they will look out for Bavarian interests in the Bundestag, as they have done for decades. I and many others many not agree with the politics of the CSU, but few would disagree that they haven’t used their political clout to make sure that Bavaria isn’t forgotten in Berlin.
Of course, that may also be overly optimistic. Bavaria is the second wealthiest state, with high rates of employment and some of Germany’s largest industrial concerns and automobile manufacturers based there.
There are tens of thousands of Bavarians who make good money in stable jobs. They don’t like change, unless it’s a tax break. Many may be less swayed by the social policies of the CSU than they are by fiscal responsibility arguments.
A Green surge?
Yet, it might be that socially liberal conservatives are tired of waiting for the climate crisis to be addressed or are sickened by CSU attempts to counter the rise of the far-right AfD by adopting similar rhetoric. Although both the SPD and the FDP have made gains, recent polls have shown that the Greens are the main beneficiaries of the CSU’s decreasing vote percentage.
Nationally, the Green party has surged from the 2017 Federal election, in Bavaria they’ve gone from 9.8 percent to 16 percent. When questioned, Bavarians have stated they would like to see a CSU/Green coalition, with the CSU in the driving seat.
Bavaria hasn't escaped the effects of climate change in recent months. Could a surge in environmental awareness also be behind the change? Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Felix Hörhager
Another factor in the shift may well be young voters. It’s clear at the national level that there is a severe divide between voters under-40 looking for more liberal approaches to government and the 60+ electorate that still support the CDU.
Although the CSU will likely remain the largest party in Bavaria come Sunday, things may be changing. Bavaria seems to be following the trend across Germany, more voters are moving away from the traditional parties of CDU/CSU and SPD and toward smaller parties such as the Greens, FDP or loose groupings such as the Freie Wähler, who could be set to pick up around three percent of the national vote.
Should the CSU vote percentage drop below 30 percent, it could signal that although Bavaria continues to have more in common culturally with Austria than Germany, politically it is very much German.