Mixed fortunes in Bavaria

A long and interesting blog post could be written on the comparison between German and Australian federalism, but this is not it (perhaps I’ll get time in the next couple of weeks). For present purposes all you need to know is that, for a variety of reasons, state elections in Germany are taken as a much more significant guide to federal elections than are their counterparts in Australia.

So if you’re interested in next Sunday’s German election, you could do a lot worse than starting with a look at yesterday’s election in Bavaria, the country’s second-largest state. There is both good news and bad news in it for chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats, seeking re-election on Sunday. (Official results are here; the BBC’s report is here.)

The good news – a morale boost, if nothing else – is that the Christian Democrats (or rather their Bavarian sister party, the CSU) won a clear victory, taking almost 48% of the vote and winning back the absolute majority of seats that they had lost in 2008. The CSU’s Horst Seehofer will remain premier but will no longer have to worry about coalition partners.

That’s just as well, because his outgoing coalition partner, the Liberals or Free Democrats (FDP), has disappeared from the Bavarian parliament, falling below the 5% minimum threshold for representation (they managed just 3.3%, down 4.7% from 2008). The bad news for Merkel is the risk that the same thing might happen at the federal level.

As I explained last week, it makes a big difference to Merkel’s prospects whether the FDP scores just above or just below the 5% mark. If it’s on the way out, as Bavaria might suggest, her task of putting together a new government will be an uphill one, even if she maintains her present lead over the SPD/Greens combination.

But Bavaria isn’t representative of Germany as a whole. The CSU’s dominance is quite unlike anything that happens at federal level; it has been in power continuously since 1957. The 2008 result was the anomaly, with yesterday’s result being more of a return to the historical norm.

The practical effect of the CSU ascendancy is that its voters have no incentive to help keep the FDP in parliament: they know that its disappearance just brings the result closer to the real goal of an absolute CSU majority.

Federally, however, it is much more likely that some Christian Democrat votes will leak to the FDP for the sole purpose of keeping it above 5% and thereby keeping a bundle of votes in parliament to support a new Merkel government. That’s apparently what happened in the state of Lower Saxony back in January, and closer to home, National Party voters in New Zealand repeatedly desert to the free-market ACT in order to shore up a potential coalition partner.

That’s not a good look for the FDP; if it becomes a CDU charity case, its freedom of movement will disappear and its long-term prospects will be dubious. But any port in a storm – the fundamental priority at this point is survival. And with the FDP’s survival are tied up the survival prospects of the chancellor herself.

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