If politics were a science, the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union would be the automatic and overwhelming victor in every regional election. Bavaria is doing quite well: it’s the richest region of the richest country in Europe with the lowest unemployment (2.8 per cent) and crime rates. Bavaria, in fact, is so wealthy that it serves as the prime donor to Germany’s poorer states. Last year, Bavaria coughed up €5.89 billion to the cash-strapped regions of the former East Germany.
Unfortunately for the CSU, politics is more art than science. You can brag about being the elected administrators of the wealthiest and most physically beautiful part of Germany but still get massacred at the polls. And so it was for the sister party of Angela Merkel’s CDU. As of posting, the CSU took just over 37 per cent of the vote in Bavaria’s regional election. The Greens nearly doubled their vote share from 2013 to 17.5 per cent, while the Free Voters and Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) finished a distant third and fourth respectively.
If current projections hold, the CSU will enter the 180-seat Bavarian parliament with 85 seats, far above the second-place finisher. And yet for a party that has dominated Bavarian politics since the early 1960s and has governed the region with an absolute majority for most of that time, Sunday’s results were an unmitigated failure for CSU head Horst Seehofer and Bavarian Premier Marcus Söder. A depressed Söder admitted as much, even if he’s likely to cast the blame for the electoral drubbing on somebody else: ‘We did not achieve a good result. We will have to learn lessons.’
And indeed, there are plenty of lessons to learn. Seehofer’s childish antics in Berlin, antics that nearly tore Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government apart, may have factored into the result. The national trend in German politics of the establishment parties siphoning support to the smaller extremes on both sides of the spectrum – the Greens on the left and the AfD on the right – punctured conservative Bavaria just like every other part of the Federal Republic.
But the most important reason why the CSU has such an abysmal performance may have been how it ran the campaign. The party tried to be too many things to too many people. With the AfD outflanking them on the right, Seehofer and Söder desperately bolted to the right in order to maintain their support among traditional voters who still revile Merkel’s 2015 decision to open the gates to over one million refugees. Like the AfD, both men talked about clamping down on immigration, toughening asylum procedures, and patrolling Bavaria’s border with Austria to prevent more migrants from coming in. Yet in so doing, the CSU likely alienated the more moderate Bavarians who view the AfD’s anti-refugee rhetoric as beyond the pale and a violation of the region’s Christian social identity. The CSU’s balancing act between a responsible right-of-center governing party and far-right immigration enforcer was just that: an act. And Bavarians took notice.
Heads will roll after this election. Seehofer is a dead man walking. The next generation of party leaders will need to ensure the CSU doesn’t follow him to the grave.