After beer and dirndl campaign, Bavaria faces vote earthquake
A plate of white sausages and a large beer in front of him, Otto Seidl bemoaned voters in the prosperous German state of Bavaria who have defected from his CSU party.
“Bavaria is doing well, everyone says that! And if Bavaria is doing well, it’s because the CSU has been governing it for more than 70 years,” exclaimed the 73-year-old Munich city councillor.
But, despite its past successes, the Christian Social Union — the Bavarian allies of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party — is facing a debacle as voters go to the polls on Sunday.
With opinion polls predicting the CSU will get just 33-35 percent in the regional vote, the party looks set to lose its absolute majority, which would set “a historical precedent,” said Sudha David-Wilp of think-tank the German Marshall Fund.
In power since 1958, most of the time ruling alone, the CSU is today struggling to stop haemorrhaging votes to both the left-leaning Greens and the far-right, anti-immigration AfD.
Sunday’s vote takes place under the shadow of the deeply polarising issue of immigration, as the state bordering Austria was the main gateway for more than a million asylum seekers who arrived in the country since 2015.
Mindful of the AfD’s anti-immigration rhetoric which was clawing away at its traditional base, the CSU’s leadership has openly clashed with Merkel over her liberal refugee stance.
But the hardline attitude and forceful manner in which CSU bosses have threatened the cohesion of Merkel’s coalition has put off many moderate voters, pushing them towards the Greens.
Monika Voland-Kleemann, a 63-year-old CSU member, expressed disbelief at the situation her party finds itself in.
She said the CSU needs to dig deep to its roots and remind voters of what has been a certainty for decades — that Bavaria is the CSU, and the CSU is Bavaria.
Officially called the Free State of Bavaria, it is Germany’s second biggest both by area and economic weight. Home to industrial titans from Siemens to BMW, it also boasts the lowest unemployment rate.
Bavaria’s strength, independent streak and cherished folk traditions, including the world-famous Oktoberfest, are something the mainly Catholic region never fails to remind the rest of Germany of.
On the hustings, the dress code for candidates is traditional dirndl dresses for women and lederhosen for men.
Beer tents are the favoured location and campaign etiquette includes speaking to voters in a broad Bavarian dialect with a stein of beer in hand.
CSU chairman Horst Seehofer may be Germany’s interior minister, but more often than not, he has stressed the message of “Bavaria first”, while state premier Markus Soeder, 51, has the slogan “Yes to Bavaria!”
But all that local patriotism is no longer enough to energise voters, according to the latest opinion polls that show the CSU’s lead eroding, while the Greens are scoring 18 percent and the AfD 10 percent.
Leading Greens candidate Ludwig Hartmann told AFP that “this vote is not just a regional vote” and predicted a shift away from home-spun populism back to moderate, pro-European policies.
“The people are certainly voting in a new state parliament, but people also notice that the political landscape is today very fractured across Europe,” he said. “We have some regions in Europe that have shifted to the far right.
“But we stand as very clear pro-Europeans, for humane refugee policies that create order and bring people together.”
The challenger from the AfD, Wilfried Biedermann, 67, seemed unfazed by such talk.
Dressed the part with lederhosen and checked shirts, he has been criss-crossing Munich’s streets with his car pulling along a trailer covered with giant posters of himself.
Opening his rally speech during the Oktoberfest, he played on the cliche of the beer-loving Bavarian: “This year, a litre of beer sold for 11.40 euros ($13). 11.40 euros! Do you find that normal?”
Shrugging off a handful of protesters, Biedermann told AFP that his party would do better than expected at the polls, predicting that with its anti-refugee and anti-Merkel message, it will “become the biggest opposition party of Bavaria”.
Next to him, fellow AfD candidate Michael Gross, 62, said that “our big rival is the CSU because they have seized our ideas and are allied with the government in Berlin.”