On Sunday, about 9.5 million voters in southern Germany went to the polls to elect the Bavarian state parliament. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the liberal Greens had good nights — but the traditionally dominant forces in German politics, the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, had nights to forget.
The result subsequently threw up a host of questions for Bavarian, German and broader European politics.
A peculiarity of German politics meant that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) wasn’t on the Bavarian ballot paper. Germany is made up of 16 states, and the CDU competes in 15 of them. In Bavaria, the 16th state, the CDU leaves the field clear for candidates from its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). The CDU and CSU form the national government in Berlin alongside the center-left, social democratic SPD.
The CSU has traditionally dominated postwar Bavarian politics. Since 1945, the party has regularly won an overall majority of the seats in parliament, no mean feat in a multiparty democracy. This time round the CSU performed very badly, polling 37.2 percent of the vote (see here for the full results) — down from 47.7 percent in the previous regional election in 2013.
The left-of-center Social Democratic Party (SPD) did every bit as badly, with 9.7 percent of the vote, after claiming 20.6 percent in 2013. The biggest gainers were two of the smaller parties; the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) as well as a resurgent Green Party. The AfD subsequently entered the Bavarian parliament for the first time with 10.2 percent of the vote, while the Greens improved from 8.6 percent in 2013 to 17.5 percent in 2018.
Is German politics in flux?
These results might suggest that Bavarian politics, and by extension German politics, is in a state of flux. Here are two good reasons to be cautious before concluding that. The tectonic plates may be moving in Germany, but that doesn’t mean a large-scale political earthquake is imminent.
Plenty of academic work looks at what drives voter choice in regional elections. We know that three things generally happen in these contests: turnout is lower than in national elections, parties that form the national government tend to perform badly in regional polls and smaller parties tend to do very well.
In this week’s Bavarian vote, two of those three assumptions find strong empirical weight. Both of the parties in the national government (CSU and SPD) that were standing in this election performed abysmally. That’s true no matter how you measure expectations (see here for one way of how those expectations could indeed be quantified).
If CSU and SPD politicians knew their electoral history, they knew that a poor performance in this election was coming. They will also know that with the next German election not due until 2021, they have time to regroup and bounce back. Indeed, that is precisely what normally happens after an election like this.
What about the theory that smaller parties tend to perform well in regional elections? Charlie Jeffery and I reported here in the Monkey Cage that in the first years of unified German politics smaller parties could regularly poll (at least) double what they would normally expect in national elections in a given state.
In Bavaria, this theory played out on steroids. The AfD didn’t compete in 2013 and yet ended up polling in double figures — and the Greens doubled their vote share. Yes, this was eye-catching on election night, but historically not quite as far removed from what we have seen before.
There’s another continuity to note here
The result looks less dramatic still if we view it through the prism of party blocks. Parties in Germany have to work together to form national governments. That’s the case as no one party ever does well enough to form a government on its own. Parties come together to craft these coalitions once election results are in.
There are essentially two of these informal “blocks” of parties. The Greens, SPD and nominally the socialist Left Party faces off against the CDU, CSU and FDP on the right. Given that the AfD is to the right of all of these parties, it, too, is seen as being in the rightist block. That’s the case even though it remains beyond the coalitional pale. In the case of Bavaria, the regionalist Free Voters (FW) also broadens the right-of-center spectrum.
In the Bavarian election, the vote share of parties on the left dropped from 31.3 in 2013 to 30.4 percent in 2018. Not a huge change. The right/center-right block also polled similar numbers to that of the CSU and FW (59 percent in 2018 vs. 57.5 percent) in 2013. These are remarkably stable numbers.
There’s reason to be cautious about reading too much into aggregate data, but this block stability is nonetheless noteworthy. That a new party is pushing the right-wing block toward the right is also noteworthy, but not — in a broader European context — extraordinary.
Did the CSU strike the right tone?
Other conservative parties in Europe might zero in on one other thing. The CSU strategy flopped — though it campaigned precisely how many on the right of Europe’s political spectrum have argued that a conservative party should do. It adopted, for example, a tough line on immigration and asylum questions and at times was almost Trumpist in tone. It did this to try to neuter the AfD, but trying to outflank the far-right by being more even more far-right didn’t work.
European politicians may also be studying what Bavaria’s Greens just did. The Greens’ success in Bavaria is matched by its performances in national opinion polls. Given the implosion of the Social Democrats, the Greens have an opportunity to cement their position as the leading force on the center-left. Whether they can take it remains one of the open questions that the Bavarian election highlights.
Dan Hough is a professor of politics at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. He tweets at @thedanhough