With right-wing governments ruling in Poland, Hungary, Austria, and Italy, Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron of France are looking increasingly isolated as the vanguards of the progressive status quo in the European Union. The latest bad news for Merkel comes from Bavaria, where state elections are to be held on Sunday, and there is a serious possibility of a massive political upset — something very un-German in a country where there are seven major political parties and stability is valued above all else.
In Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the regional sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), is polling at just 36.5 percent; it’s the CDU’s worst showing since 1950. And those missing votes are headed straight to the pocket of the ethno-nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Bavaria is not unlike Texas in some ways. It’s geographically large and plays an outsize role in politics and national stereotypes — locals consider themselves Bavarians first and Germans second. It’s been solidly conservative for decades. Indeed, the CSU has won the governorship without pause since 1957.
For most Germans, the CSU and Bavaria are inextricably intertwined. But the rise of the far right is extreme even by conservative Bavarian standards and will have repercussions that stretch far outside of one state’s borders. That should worry both Merkel and anyone who champions European liberalism.
The rapid decline of the CSU has much to do with its now wildly unpopular former governor, Horst Seehofer, who left Munich for Berlin in March to become Merkel’s interior minister, a portfolio that includes the equivalent of both the US Departments of Justice and Homeland Security. Disapproval of Seehofer began concurrently with his tenure in Merkel’s cabinet, as he tried to bully the chancellor into adopting stricter immigration controls and hinting that he’d be willing to pull the CSU from the ruling coalition, effectively bringing down the entire government.
Seehofer, it seems, had not heeded the lessons of the past, which is littered with even more formidable foes who have challenged the chancellor and been left in the dust. His attempts to strongarm Merkel in June resulted in a “compromise” that saw her give up very little ground. He was so humiliated he even offered to resign, though Merkel didn’t accept, opting unsurprisingly for stability.
The affair soured the public mood against Seehofer, who’s approval ratings toppled 16 percentage points to a dismal 27 percent. And that dislike has only been compounded in recent weeks, as neo-Nazi violence in the eastern city of Chemnitz met with only muted condemnation from the interior minister.
To make matters worse, Seehofer has stuck by his controversial head of domestic intelligence, Hans-Georg Maassen, who was fired after a report surfaced that Maassen was not only protecting right-wing parties like the AfD, but also had actually passed sensitive information about Islamic extremism to the openly Islamophobic party. (It is part of the AfD’s official party manifesto that “Islam does not belong in Germany.”)
Although the chancellor may have looked like the victor after June’s spat, her popularity also took a nosedive. Indeed, she has been much weakened ever since last year’s federal elections, with her CDU dropping to historic lows in support. She was then forced to endure an embarrassing six months where Germany was without a government as she struggled to build a majority coalition.
Although there is nothing that would indicate that Merkel’s political career will be over before Germany’s next national election, in 2021, the chancellor’s reputation is not what it once was, putting her in considerably worse shape than the other remaining vanguard of European progressivism, France’s Macron.
One should not underestimate what the projected returns of 13.5 percent mean for the AfD in Bavaria. With elections in the state of Hesse following not long after, a party only founded in 2013 will be represented in every state parliament and on the federal level, the first time a far-right party has had such a distinction since World War II.
As the CSU has attempted to distance itself from Merkel, worried that the AfD is outflanking it on the right, it has only continued to play into the nationalists’ hands. This means that Bavaria’s elections are not only a referendum on Merkel’s (likely) final, tired chancellorship, but a huge new platform from which the AfD can continue to make good on its promise to “make life as difficult as possible” for Germany’s mainstream parties, both at home and on the European stage.
Elizabeth Schumacher is a US journalist based in Germany.