Key takeaways from yesterday’s election in Bavaria

The end result of yesterday’s election in Bavaria is German chancellor Angela Merkel’s sister party, the CSU, losing its absolute majority and being forced to govern in a coalition government after the party’s worst showing since 1950. Overall though, despite a lot of media attention focused on this election, I don’t think the outcome tells us a lot about the political climate in Germany or in Western Europe. But there are several threads I want to mesh to give you a view into what happened yesterday.

The center parties now represent old, dying people

The most telling statistics on voting in the election comes from the analysis of just how the CSU lost its absolute majority. Take a look at where 2013 CSU voters went in 2018.

Bavaria election CSU voters.png

Source: Tagesschau

Now, all of the colored boxes are parties. The grey boxes from top to bottom on the 2018 side are other parties, non-voters, party leavers, and dead people. It’s that last box – dead people – that is the important one because that’s where the CSU lost the most voters. The CSU’s members are dying. Put simply, the CSU is a party of old people. The CSU is dying.

That’s not true just for the CSU, but also the other mainline center party, the SPD.

Bavaria election SPD voters

Source: Taggesschau

While the SPD also hemorrhaged voters to the CSU and the Green Party, in percentage terms the losses to death were just as significant as they were for the CSU.

So forget about the party switches for a second and think about what that means. For me, it is a clear sign that the mainline German political parties are not fresh or ‘innovative’; they are seen by the electorate as embodying the past and unable to move forward. Older people might be attracted by that. Younger people are repelled by it.


The Greens now represent the center left in Germany

On Friday, in the daily, I wrote the following about the election:

Look at the SPD in Germany. This is what happens when you sell out the working class to so-called ‘neo-liberal’ ideology. Voters go further left to the Greens or to the radical right of the AfD. Social Democrats all across Western Europe are getting the same fate.

This is exactly what happened in the Netherlands last year, by the way. As I put it in March 2017, after the election:

The Labour Party, like all social democratic parties in the West, has ‘modernized’. That means moving toward market-based and pragmatic, responsible budgetary solutions. And it also means they have liberalized labour markets to make them more flexible, believing this would create jobs and cement their position as guardians of the values of ordinary labourers.

This approach is no longer working electorally. It worked under Clinton in the US in 92, under Blair in the UK in 97 and under Schröder in Germany in 98. But it is basically working nowhere in Europe or the United States now as a calling card for left of center parties. The real message of the Dutch election is that the Labour Party is not considered a ‘labour’ party by many workers. And those workers have been forced to decide whether to support more nationalist politicians and platforms to get what they want or to stay home.

Today, most mainline center-left parties in the West are dominated by old people like Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden in the United States. And these people very much support the prevailing ideology that has eviscerated the middle class, their base of support. And so their base has eroded, particularly in Western Europe.

In Germany, where the SPD has governed in a coalition with the center-right for nine of the last 13 years, working class people have abandoned the party in droves. The Green Party now represents the future center-left in Germany.

Here’s what the FT said about its leader in Bavaria ahead of the election:

According to Ms Schulze, the recent success of the Green party is a sign of the deep political unease felt by many mainstream voters in Germany. “Many people have a desire for a new political home. They have a feeling that things are shifting and turning, and that the old way of doing politics has changed,” she said recently.

The Greens stood out, she argued, because they continued to defend progressive causes such as open borders, European integration, and stringent environmental rules at a time when other leftwing parties were under pressure to bend to populist rhetoric. “We don’t play bullshit bingo. We have a clear line,” she said…

Both Ms Schulze and her co-leader, Mr Hartmann, belong to the centrist wing of the Green party. They are happy to talk about the need to save the bees, but their pragmatic streak has also allowed the party to broaden its appeal beyond traditional Green strongholds in affluent and well-educated urban districts. “The Greens have managed to occupy the theme of Heimat [homeland],” says Prof Münch. “In the past this was a theme that was exclusive to the CSU . . . But now the Greens have come and laid claim to the term Heimat themselves.”

And note that the left vote percentage has largely stayed the same.

It’s just a shift in which parties are benefitting.

The nationalist right is potent but there are limits

Finally, there is the nationalist right, the AfD. A lot is said about the AfD’s pull. But ,the AfD polled lower in Bavaria’s state election than it did in the general election a year ago. So I wouldn’t make a lot out of what this election says about the strength of the right in Germany.

In fact, there was anti-right demonstration in Berlin with more than 100,000 marching on the eve of this election.  And when you look for reasons why the CSU lost its absolute majority, 73% of former CSU voters said the party focussed too much on refugees, one of the AfD’s hobby horses, at the expense of more important issues. Moreover, look at the first graphic on the CSU above; the party lost more voters to the Greens than to the AfD.

With this election, the AfD is represented in 15 of the 16 statehouses in Germany. And after the election in Hesse, later in the month, it will probably be 16 out of 16. Nevertheless, I don’t see the AfD taking hold as strongly in the 11 states of the former West Germany as it has done in the five in the former East Germany.

Final thoughts

So, overall, this is a win for the Greens. They now represent the center-left in Bavaria. But it’s unclear what they plan to do with their power since entering into a governing coalition with the CSU is unthinkable for their voters. It looks like the CSU will go into government with the SPD or the FW (Freie Wähler), who got the second largest vote count.

The SPD are a spent force in Germany. A grand coalition in Bavaria with the CSU would simply reinforce how they’ve basically abandoned their principles as advocates for the working class.

The AfD are approaching their electoral ceiling in western Germany, in my view. Barring a deep recession, I don’t see the party as likely to get significantly more voters onside, given their hardline neo-fascist reputation, voter base and political positions. It’s in the former East Germany where the AfD will remain a force to reckon with.

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