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GERMAN FEDERAL ELECTION

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.

Why Bavaria does politics differently to the rest of Germany
Bavarian state premier and CSU leader Markus Söder and CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet enjoy a plate of sausages in Nuremburg on the election campaign trail. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Karmann

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. 

READ ALSO: 7 things to know about the Bavaria 2018 election

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. 

READ ALSO: Election 2021: What a CDU-led coalition could mean for foreigners in Germany

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. 

READ ALSO: ‘I’m not a racist’: The word on the street about Bavaria’s elections

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. 

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POLITICS

Germany’s ‘traffic light’ parties sign coalition agreement in Berlin

Two and a half months after the federal elections on September 26th, the three parties of the incoming 'traffic light' coalition - the SPD, Greens and FDP - have formally signed their coalition agreement at a public ceremony in Berlin.

Traffic light coalition
Germany's next Chancellor Olaf Scholz (front, left) on stage in Berlin with other members of the new coalition government, and their signed agreement. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

The move marks the final stage of a 10-week week process that saw the three unlikely bedfellows forming a first-of-its-kind partnership in German federal government. 

The SPD’s Olaf Scholz is now due to be elected Chancellor of Germany on Wednesday and his newly finalised cabinet will be sworn in on the same day. This will mark the end of the 16-year Angela Merkel era following the veteran leader’s decision to retire from politics this year. 

Speaking at the ceremony in Berlin on Tuesday morning, Scholz declared it “a morning when we set out for a new government.”

He praised the speed at which the three parties had concluded their talks and said the fight against the Covid crisis would first require the full strength of the new coalition.

Green Party co-leader Robert Habeck, who is set to head up a newly formed environment and energy ministry, said the goal was “a government for the people of Germany”.

He stressed that the new government would face the joint challenge of bringing climate neutrality and prosperity together in Europe’s largest industrial nation and the world’s fourth largest economy.

Green Party leader Annalena Baerbock spoke of a coalition agreement “on the level of reality, on the level of social reality”.

FDP leader Christian Lindner, who managed to secure the coveted role of Finance Minister in the talks, declared that now was the “time for action”.

“We are not under any illusions,” he told people gathered at the ceremony. “These are great challenges we face.”

Scholz, Habeck and Lindner are scheduled to hold  a press conference before midday to answer questions on the goals of the new government.

‘New beginnings’

Together with the Greens and the FDP, Scholz’s SPD managed in a far shorter time than expected to forge a coalition that aspires to make Germany greener and fairer.

The Greens became the last of the three parties to agree on the contents of the 177-page coalition agreement an in internal vote on Monday, following approval from the SPD and FDP’s inner ranks over the weekend.

“I want the 20s to be a time of new beginnings,” Scholz told Die Zeit weekly, declaring an ambition to push forward “the biggest industrial modernisation which will be capable of stopping climate change caused by mankind”.

Putting equality rhetoric into practice, he unveiled the country’s first gender-balanced cabinet on Monday, with women in key security portfolios.

“That corresponds to the society we live in – half of the power belongs to women,” said Scholz, who describes himself as a “feminist”.

READ ALSO: Scholz names Germany’s first gender-equal cabinet

The centre-left’s return to power in Europe’s biggest economy could shift the balance on a continent still reeling from Brexit and with the other major player, France, heading into presidential elections in 2022.

But even before it took office, Scholz’s “traffic-light” coalition – named after the three parties’ colours – was already given a baptism of fire in the form of a fierce fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Balancing act
 
Dubbed “the discreet” by left-leaning daily TAZ, Scholz, 63, is often described as austere or robotic.
 
But he also has a reputation for being a meticulous workhorse.
 
An experienced hand in government, Scholz was labour minister in Merkel’s first coalition from 2007 to 2009 before taking over as vice chancellor and finance minister in 2015.
 
Yet his three-party-alliance is the first such mix at the federal level, as the FDP is not a natural partner for the SPD or the Greens.

Keeping the trio together will require a delicate balancing act taking into account the FDP’s business-friendly leanings, the SPD’s social equality instincts and the Greens’ demands for sustainability.

Under their coalition deal, the parties have agreed to secure Germany’s path to carbon neutrality, including through huge investments in sustainable energy.

They also aim to return to a constitutional no-new-debt rule – suspended during the pandemic – by 2023.

FDP cabinets
Volker Wissing (l-r), FDP General Secretary und designated Transport Minister, walks alongside Christian Lindner, FDP leader and designated Finance Minister, Bettina Stark-Watzinger (FDP), the incoming Education Minister, and Marco Buschmann, the incoming Justice Minister. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

READ ALSO: 

Incoming foreign minister Annalena Baerbock of the Greens has vowed to put human rights at the centre of German diplomacy.

She has signalled a more assertive stance towards authoritarian regimes like China and Russia after the commerce-driven pragmatism of Merkel’s 16 years in power.

Critics have accused Merkel of putting Germany’s export-dependent economy first in international dealings.

Nevertheless she is still so popular at home that she would probably have won a fifth term had she sought one.

The veteran politician is also widely admired abroad for her steady hand guiding Germany through a myriad of crises.

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