BERLIN – When it comes to regional politics in Germany, no state is more influential than Bavaria, the nation's economic powerhouse and an unabashed conservative stronghold often compared to Texas.

But Oct. 14's election in Bavaria is expected to be a referendum on Chancellor Angela Merkel's policies over the past few years, and on her fellow conservatives to the south, who have repeatedly caused trouble for her since her decision to allow more than a million refugees into the country three years ago.

In fact, for the first time in decades, the conservatives in Bavaria are under threat from the far right – and from the left.
"They tried to fight fire with fire at the beginning of the year with regard to the migration crisis," said Olaf Boehnke, a senior advisor in Berlin with Rasmussen Global, a Brussels-based think-tank, referring to Bavaria's conservatives. "But they're realizing that if you try to be more extreme than the extremists, it's a lost cause."

For 12 of the last 13 elections in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the conservative sister-party of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), has ruled with an absolute majority – a rarity in German politics, where compromise and coalition building between parties is the norm.

That's allowed the CSU in Bavaria, home to famed automotive giant BMW and the Oktoberfest, to create a conservative, semi-autonomous cultural and political bubble in Germany's south. The state recently passed laws mandating that crosses be hung in all administrative buildings, much to the ire of Berlin.

But the political hegemony of the CSU will likely change Sunday: Chancellor Merkel's sister party is only polling at 33 percent, according to the latest figures from German broadcaster ZDF. That's a whopping 15 percent less than they won in the last Bavarian elections in 2013.

Meanwhile, the environmentalist Greens are polling in second at 18 percent, while the AfD is polling at 10 percent, according to the ZDF poll.

Regional elections in Germany have a huge impact on national politics, though election outcomes are often due to both local and national factors, wrote Carsten Brzeski, chief economist for ING Germany, in an analysis of the upcoming election.
But this time around, the question of what's driving the demise of the CSU in Bavaria is very clear.

"The CSU tried to make the election a kind of referendum on Merkel's stance on refugees," Brzeski said. "The continuous nagging and trouble-seeking in Berlin, initiated by the CSU, has completely turned this around."

Chancellor Merkel's conservative bloc lost over one million votes to the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) in last year's federal elections, a development largely connected to the party's condemnation of her 2015 decision to open the nation's borders to over 1 million, mostly Muslim refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East and elsewhere.

It was a decision that particularly affected Bavaria, a Catholic stronghold which served as the main entry point for those who traveled through the Balkans to reach Germany, said Boehnke.

That gave Bavaria and the CSU "a special role to play as to how to cope with this," he said. "They don't only reject free-floating migration, but also were the first victims who were subject to this new trend."

With refugees a hot-button issue in the state and the AfD gaining ground, the CSU – which forms a government in Berlin with Chancellor Merkel's CDU and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) – sought to move refugee and immigration policy to the right in order to assert their dominance.

In doing so, however, they almost toppled Merkel's already-fragile coalition multiple times in recent months.

In June, CSU party chairman and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer threatened to order German police to turn away refugees at the Bavarian-Austrian border without Berlin's blessing. Such a move would have undermined Merkel's authority and shattered her coalition. She was forced to hold an emergency summit on asylum policy with European partners in order to calm her unruly sister party.

Intergovernmental tensions spiked again in September, when two refugees allegedly murdered a German-Cuban man in the eastern city of Chemnitz, prompting riots and right-wing violence that lasted for a week.

Such acts were caught on video, but dismissed by the head of the nation's domestic security unit, sparking public outrage and calls for his resignation. Being a close ally of Seehofer's, however, he was instead given an interior ministry posting – once again demonstrating how the CSU continues to "hijack" the government in Berlin in order to win back votes locally, wrote Brzeski.

The CSU's abysmal numbers ahead of the Bavarian elections indicate that voters are tired of their political meddling in Berlin – a positive signal for an embattled Chancellor Merkel who's struggling to keep her government together, said Boehnke.

"They cannot play the blame-Merkel card too excessively," he said. "They tried to make her a boogeyman, but there's not much to this."

But the suspected outcome of Sunday's elections is also indicative of a larger trend of political fragmentation in Germany, said Georg Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University.

With both the Greens and the AfD strengthened by voter dissatisfaction with mainstream parties on both the local and federal level, a more segmented political environment is taking hold in Germany that will ultimately put the nation in the same precarious political situation as once-stable nations like Sweden and Austria.

"We're currently seeing a break down of society, or at the very least in this case a breakdown of large political milieus into many smaller ones," said Neugebauer.

Such a consequential political trend has expanded the scope of how an election in Germany's Texas can impact the nation and beyond.

"Things are changing on a bigger scale – and Bavaria is a perfect example," said Boehnke. "The political system is on the move."

Photo: Würzburg, Germany - Minister President of Bavaria Markus Söder (CSU) at a CSU party rally in Würzburg, Germany.
Credit: Courtesy of Christian Social Union's official Twitter page (10/09/2018)

Story/photo publish date: 10/11/18

A version of this story was published by The Washington Times.
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