Despite yesterday’s national election in Luxembourg (which will be a separate post), the headlines in Europe were all for a state election, in Bavaria – which is not only a lot bigger than Luxembourg, but was much more dramatic. (Official results here.)
The four big parties all saw big shifts in votes. The governing Christian Social Union (CSU), the local version of the Christian Democrats, fell 10.4% to 37.2%; the Social Democrats (SPD) fell 10.9% to 9.7%; the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), contesting for the first time, won 10.2% (up 8.6% on the far-right vote from 2013); and the Greens were up 8.9% to 17.5%. Turnout also jumped, by 8.8% to 72.4%.
Whether or not that amounts to a revolution in Bavarian politics depends a bit on how you look at it. Taking the parties of the centre-right and far right together, they totalled 49.2%, a drop of 2.2%. Left and centre-left parties in aggregate were down 2.4% to 31.7%, while the remaining 19.1% went to centrists and others: mostly the Free Voters (a coalition of independents), up 2.6% to 11.6%, and the Liberals (FDP), up 1.8% to 5.1%.
So on that basis there seems to be a small drift from extremes to centre, and a larger movement within both right and left. The SPD is losing support in much the same way as centre-left parties elsewhere – in this case to the Greens – and right-wing voters, radicalised by the immigration question, are deserting the mainstream CSU for the far right.
In fact, I don’t for a moment think that that’s the only thing happening. No doubt there’s also some movement of working class, anti-immigrant voters from the SPD to AfD, and a corresponding shift of middle class anti-racist voters from the CSU to the Greens.
But without looking at more detailed figures it’s hard to estimate the relative importance of these different shifts. I’m hoping someone with better German skills than mine will attempt it, but if not I might have a try later in the week.
Although the voting system is proportional, the statewide 5% threshold can distort representation. The right, with just under half the vote, won 107 of the 205 seats (85 CSU and 22 AfD); the centre-left won 60 (38 Greens and 22 SPD) and the rest 38 (27 Free Voters and 11 FDP, who just cleared the 5% mark). The Left, with 3.2%, was up 1.1% from last time but still well short of the threshold.
Right-wing though they may be, there is still no chance of the CSU breaking the taboo on co-operation with AfD. Most likely they will take in the Free Voters as coalition partners, which would provide a comfortable majority. Christian Democrats in other states have on occasion been willing to team up with the Greens, but that would probably be a bridge too far for the CSU.
What does it mean for German or European politics more widely? Voters punish disunity; the CSU has been a thorn in the side of the Christian Democrats at federal level (not dissimilar to the relationship between Nationals and Liberals in Australia), and chancellor Angela Merkel would be happy to see the back of Horst Seehofer, CSU chairman and federal interior minister.
Voters also continue to desert the centre-left, especially when it unites with its historic rivals. That’s why the SPD was so reluctant last year to enter another grand coalition with Merkel’s CDU: it knew that it would suffer as a result. But it had little alternative once the FDP spat the dummy and refused to join a coalition with the CDU and Greens.
Resistance against the far right (or, for that matter, the far left) needs a strong centre, a basically liberal force that can hold nativist sentiment in check to both left and right. In Germany, the FDP and Greens are competing to provide that – and if Bavaria is any guide, the Greens are winning the competition.
Even more importantly, however, the resistance needs the mainstream centre-right parties to hold firm against concessions to the far right. In terms of actual co-operation in government, Germany has little to fear on that score; its twentieth century experience inoculates it against any suggestion of admitting neo-fascists into office.
But the CSU has drifted a long way towards the far right’s agenda when it comes to immigration, and its voters didn’t buy it. Those that agreed with the drift saw it as legitimising the option of voting for AfD; those that didn’t took it as a reason to jump ship to the Greens.
Will others learn the lesson?