‘I’m not a racist’: The word on the street about Bavaria’s elections

The Oktoberfest concluded last weekend. The brilliant autumnal weather that usually accompanies it continues to bathe Bavaria in golden sunlight. But it’s not the persistent hangovers and lingering incidence of the notorious Wiesengrippe (Oktoberfest flu) that’s giving Munich the shakes.

'I'm not a racist': The word on the street about Bavaria's elections
Young volunteers in a campaign in Aschaffenburg, Bavaria, to get more young people to vote.

This week the skies are brilliant blue and cloudless, but heavy political weather threatens to reign in the weeks after October 14th, Bavarian parliamentary election day on Sunday.

People go about their business in the streets or bask the magnificent sunshine. But ask them about their views regarding the election, and the clouds roll in. “Nein, danke”, “I’d rather not”, “I can’t talk about it”. Voters are unsure, worried.

The campaign has unnerved many people here – and outside Bavaria. The febrile political atmosphere, together with party speeches and slogans, has loosened party loyalties across the spectrum. The big losers are the once powerful main parties CSU and SPD.

SEE ALSO: What you need to know about the upcoming Bavarian election

Nearly every tree, every street lamp, every no-parking post has been upgraded to political announcement, emblazoned with election posters.

“Future in mind, Munich in the heart.” Photo: Christine Madden.

The Litfaßsäulen (the massive, barrel-like advertising columns on the streets) and billboards carry larger-than-life images of Bavarian Minister President Markus Söder, smiling confidently over his shoulder. Nothing in his looks would give away the fact that, on his watch, the traditionally absolute power of his party, the CSU, has drastically waned.

Now the party is polling at 34 percent, one percent less than last week and far less than their traditional over-40 percent.

“I’m very uncertain this year,” says Munich resident Huschi Quast. “All the things that happened – everybody knows what was in the papers – and what happened with the refugees, and the aggression, and the way one or the other party deal with it. All these things make me dubious.”

Last year’s general election in Germany set the stage for the Bavarian election this year. The ruling party in Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, took a cruel hit. Its coalition partner and sister party in Bavaria, the CSU (Christian Social Union) also lost out.

SEE ALSO: Embattled CSU and SPD in last minute push to win back voters

Looking for alternatives

The surprisingly good results achieved by the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) alarmed the political establishment as well as the general public. The long-faced CSU party grandees appeared at a televised press conference to acknowledge their poor result. “Wir haben verstanden,” (“We hear you”) party leader Horst Seehofer soberly announced.

Fast-forward through the events and actions of his party over the past year, and it doesn’t seem like they heard correctly.

“The CSU will go down the drain,” predicts Quast. “That’s what all the media say.” She and her husband are considering giving their vote to the Freie Wähler (Free Voters) party instead. It’s one of many profiting from the general political mistrust and malaise.

The free voters are “Grappling with Bavaria”. Photo: Christine Madden.

The political status quo has become so unstable and insecure that even the far-left party Die Linke might get into the Bavarian parliament this year – an eye-popping first for this traditionally conservative German state.

But even the Left party candidate standing at the top of the escalator on Karlsplatz to greet pedestrians shows wariness. When asked by The Local for a few words, Julia Killet, Die Linke education adviser in Munich-Pasing, wants to see some ID. They’d had some trouble from people at the right end of the spectrum, she apologizes.

But once she gets going, she becomes very upbeat. Current polls, she says, estimate the Left vote at between 4 and 5 per cent. “We’ve got very, very good prospects.” She wants her party to succeed, she explains, because “I want to see the wealth in this beautiful Bavarian state be fairly distributed, and I want to take a determined step against the shift to the right”.

At the other end of the city centre, enjoying a beer in the late afternoon sunshine at Munich’s Viktualienmarkt with some friends, a voter at the other end of the political spectrum has other ideas. Wearing a hat made colourful by myriad badges, Michael Watschinger declares himself to be an AfD voter.

“All the other parties should go,” he states. “People who’ve worked for 45 years hardly get any pension. Merkel does nothing. All the refugees should be deported.”

In case there’s any doubt, however, he insists: “I’m not a racist. Absolutely not. But we’ve got people here from aller Herren Länder [countries all over the world]. Meanwhile, this country has become a dictatorship.”

Migrants and refugees: a big topic 

The same evening, at a televised live appearance in Bad Aibling,  Söder fields questions from the public. He uses the same expression – aller Herren Länder – when taking a question about migrants and refugees.

A member of the public is angered by the statement: “Migration is the mother of all problems”. “Did I say that?” Söder parries, intimating that he did not use that phrase (it in fact comes from Seehofer). The questioner is steadfast: Söder didn’t contradict it, either.

Söder is for “secure jobs in all regions”. Photo: Christine Madden.

Over the course of an hour, Söder appears increasingly defensive. He distances himself from politics in Berlin, saying, “It’s about Bavaria, it’s about stability, about strength in Bavaria … it’s about whether Bavaria will become just another federal state, or remain the Free State of Bavaria. That’s what I’m fighting for.”

But he’s under pressure. While answering a question about the housing situation– a huge issue in Bavaria, where the prices have gone through the roof and continue to climb – Söder describes a having to restructure a state bank that was billions in debt as “the hardest job of my life – apart from this broadcast”.

Greens on the rise, as SPD wanes

The next day, the sun still shines – but primarily for the Green Party. The main parties’ decline in popularity has benefited them more than any other. For their final rally on Thursday, October 11th, there’s not a cloud in sight. One after the other, key candidates Katharina Schulze and Ludwig Hartmann, followed by Germany’s Green Party leader Robert Habeck, addresses the crowd on Marienplatz.

The mood is jubilant: current polls put them at about 18 percent – which, if the vote goes accordingly, would make them the second strongest party in Bavaria.

Their success could also create headaches for them and upset the equilibrium in the Free State. Since 1957, the CSU has been able to govern Bavaria with an absolute or nearly absolute majority. Given the projected results, would they go into coalition with the Greens?

Even if they could overcome their differences, what kind of upheaval would coalition bring to either party? And their reputations? The SPD have recently put up election placards saying “Wer grün wählt, kriegt Söder” (If you vote Green, you get Söder).

'If you vote Green, you get Söder'. Photo: DPA

“We’re ready to talk to with any of the democratic parties – except the AfD,” Hartmann tells The Local at the rally. “The key factor is what we can materially achieve. We’re always ready to discuss ecological, fair and pro-European politics.”

Fizzing atmosphere

When Schulze takes the stage, the atmosphere fizzes. A few days ago, she was chosen the best public speaker in this election by the Bavarian wing of the Verband der Redenschreiber deutscher Sprache (Association of German-language Speechwriters).

SEE ALSO: The Greens, Germany's other party on the rise

“People tell us they want politics that create courage instead of fear,” she declares – a dig at the CSU, which warn of instability if the status quo is toppled after the election. “And they tell us that they want politics that solve people have today instead of constantly creating new problems.”

'Don't vote for the right'

Away from the bustle on Marienplatz, students take a break in the sun in front of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. They, too, are hesitant to speak, but perhaps because they’ve just embarked on their lives as voters.

“I know what the posters generally say,” says Ann-Sophie (who didn’t want her surname mentioned), and last year, at school, we learned a lot about the parties for the election in 2017.”

Her friend Emma says she always votes Green “because I hope that the environment will improve”. Apart from that, adds Ann-Sophie, “we don’t need any big changes. We’re a wealthy country. We just need to support the people who aren’t doing well.”

Emma concludes: “Don’t vote for the right.” They all assent.

“Give courage instead of make fear”: a direct stab at the AfD. Photo: Christine Madden

What everyone does seem to agree on is that the parties – seven of which might make it to the Bavarian parliament – all want to make a difference and help people, albeit in their sometimes very different ways. “I think they’re all looking for solutions,” says Quast. “The politicians have to act in the best interests of the voters.”

She pauses. “I hope it’s that way,” she says and laughs.

For now, the sun is still shining in cloudless skies over Bavaria, and is set to continue over the weekend. Who knows what storms may follow from Sunday evening.

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‘Not harmless nutcases’: German authorities identify new suspects in alleged coup plot

German authorities have identified more suspects after the major raids against the Reichsbürger, who allegedly sought to overthrow the government. Here’s what we know so far.

'Not harmless nutcases': German authorities identify new suspects in alleged coup plot

Germany has now identified 54 suspects and conducted more than 150 searches, Federal Criminal Office (BKA) President Holger Münch told public broadcaster ARD on Thursday.

The current suspects include an eccentric aristocrat known for his outspoken conspiracy theories, as well as former militia and an Alternative for Germany (AfD) member who until recently sat in German parliament.

READ ALSO: Who was involved in the alleged plot to ‘overthrow German democracy’?

Weapons – including crossbows and rifles – were also found at around 50 locations, Münch said, adding that there would likely be more suspects and searches in the coming days.

On Wednesday around 3,000 federal police carried officers carried out raids and arrests on a total of 25 people in eleven German states, as well as Italy and Austria.

Those arrested on Wednesday included “a dangerous mix of people with irrational convictions, some with a lot of money and others in possession of weapons”, Münch said.

They had put in place “a plan that they also intended to carry out… That makes it dangerous and that is why we intervened,” he said.

However, “We should not assume that a group with a few dozen members, maybe a hundred, is able to really challenge the state system in Germany,” Münch said.

“We have identified other people whose status in relation to this group we do not yet know exactly,” he said.
The group is thought to be made up of supporters of the “Citizens of the Reich” (Reichsbürger), an ideological movement in Germany that encompasses far-right extremists, conspiracy theorists and gun enthusiasts.

The Reichsbürger generally believe in the continued existence of the pre-World War I German Reich, or empire, under a monarchy and several groups have declared their own states.

Long-time targets

Germany’s security authorities had been targeting the Reichsbürger group since the spring and had a fairly clear overview of its development and plans, according to Thomas Haldenwang, the President of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

Their plans then became increasingly concrete and weapons were procured, Haldenwang told public broadcaster ZDF.

“The German security authorities as a whole had the situation under control at all times,” he said. “But if it had been up to this group, this danger was already quite real.”

BKA chief Münch rejected accusations that authorities waited until the last moment to act. Rather, he said, the had wanted to gather enough evidence that a terrorist organization was behind the plans. There was no clarity yet on the timing of the overtly planned coup, he added. 

Heinrich XIII

The arrested Heinrich XIII, Prince of Preuss sits in a police car in Frankfurt on Wednesday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Boris Roessler

‘Anything but harmless nutcases’

Terrorism expert Peter Neumann said that the group is “able and willing to carry out serious terrorist attacks against the state,” Neumann told Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland . 

“They formulate resistance narratives most clearly and claim to have the right and legitimacy to wage armed resistance against the state,” Neumann said.

CSU interior affairs expert Andrea Lindholz saw a “new quality” in the group’s willingness to use violence. 

Reichsbürger are “anything but harmless nutcases and conspiracy theorists,” the deputy leader of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group told the Rheinische Post newspaper on Thursday.

Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser also warned against underestimating the group. What made them so dangerous, she said, was “that there was a military arm of it. With people who used to be in the Bundeswehr, so they can also handle weapons,” the SPD politician told public broadcaster ARD.

Haldenwang told ARD that security checks needed to be conducted on all people who are accepted into the security agencies of the federal and state governments.

The Reichsbürger scene has been underestimated for too long, said Germany’s Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which is committed to combating right-wing extremism, racism and anti-Semitism.

Repeatedly in recent years, there had been clear signs that the followers were ready to use violence and were apparently also well organized, extremism researcher Lorenz Blumenthaler, who works for the foundation, told the DPA. 

“But especially in security circles, the groups have often been ridiculed and their enormous potential danger taken lightly, despite intensive warnings from civil society.” 

The issue, however, has been high on the political agenda ever since authorities foiled plans to kidnap German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach in April, he said.

 “Nobody is really laughing [at the threat] anymore.”

White House offers support

The U.S. government has offered support to Germany following Wednesday’s crackdown.

“We remain in close contact with our partners in government and stand ready to help if asked,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told DPA on Wednesday when asked if the U.S. was offering Germany intelligence on the matter.

She said they welcome the diligence of the German government and its law enforcement agencies in the fight “against violent extremism” and for the “security of its citizens and government facilities.”