‘Disaster avoided’: How Bavaria voted in Germany’s federal election

'Disaster avoided': How Bavaria voted in Germany's federal election
CSU leader Markus Söder on voting day. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Sommer
As the sister party of the CDU, Bavaria's CSU has also suffered massive losses in the election - but has managed to stay afloat. Nic Houghton explores how the southern state voted and what could happen next.

When the first projections for the results of the Bundestagswahl were released on Sunday, it quickly became clear that the predictions were true: German voters will have to wait many weeks, possibly months before they know exactly what constellation their government will form. The margins are narrow, but as it stands on Monday morning the SPD are frontrunners to form the next German government while the CDU are still clinging to their own hopes, despite a historic defeat nationally.

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Here in Bavaria, like the 15 other states in Germany, we will also have to wait to discover who will be the next Chancellor, but for the Christian Social Party (CSU) – the Bavarian sister party of Angela Merkel’s CDU – the recriminations can begin in earnest. The largest party in Germany’s southern state didn’t drop below 30 percent as many polls predicted and so avoided total disaster. However, 31.7 percent of the vote is not the headline many of the party faithful will have been hoping for at the beginning of the campaign. “Disaster not as Disaster-y as first thought” is hardly inspiring.

For a party that has regularly received over 40 percent in elections, this is still a damaging end to the election campaign. In fact, 2021 will probably go down as the worst election since 1949 for the party of Bavarian state premier Markus Söder. Söder will be wondering what went wrong – after all, the CSU have been unassailable for decades. Not only that, but as many surveys have shown over the last few months, the only politician more popular than Markus Söder is Angela Merkel. 

READ ALSO: Why Bavaria does politics differently to the rest of Germany

Unsatisfactory… but not the worst outcome

The first to comment on the result for the CSU was their General Secretary Markus Blume who described the numbers coming in as “unsatisfactory” at a press conference in Munich soon after the polls closed, but went on to make the point that 32 percent may well chasten pollsters who had predicted catastrophe. The supposed swing to the left hadn’t materialised he declared, reaching Panglossian levels of optimism for what is still a very dismal result.

The CSU’s Markus Söder and the CDU’s Armin Laschet during the post-election debate. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Pool | Sebastian Gollnow

Markus Söder himself commented on the results as he prepared for the Elefantenrunde, a televised debate between the various party leaders that takes place hours after polls officially close. For Söder the result was “not satisfactory” but clearly optimism isn’t in short supply in Bavaria as he followed up with this – “But it is well above the national result and is at least a substantial contribution.” It perhaps suggests the level of security that CSU politicians still feel that a six percentage point loss can be summed up in such a manner.

Stability was the CSU watchword throughout the election, but perhaps the results will spur a modernisation of the party that has already been championed by Söder himself. How successful this will be is anyone’s guess, the party of traditional Bavaria is not renowned for its desire to make sweeping changes, but there is clearly a need to reengage with voters, especially young voters. With state elections only a year away, the CSU will have to move fast if it hopes to change perceptions before an even more serious election disaster occurs.

The ‘winners’ in Bavaria

Celebrations may be cancelled at CSU headquarters, but there was certainly something to cheer about at the election event for the Bavarian Green Party. The Greens managed to win twice as many votes in Bavaria than in 2017, seeing them become the third biggest party in the state with 14.1 percent. Additionally, Green Party candidate and deputy chair of the federal party, Jamila Schäfer, won the first direct mandate in Bavaria for her party in Munich, as the capital turned green on election night. There was also history made in Nürnberg as Tessa Ganserer is to become the first transgender woman to represent Bavaria in the Bundestag.

The Greens’ Tessa Ganserer made history in Nuremberg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Karmann

Second place in the state went to the resurgent SPD who took 18 percent, which is no small feat given the dwindling poll numbers seen at the beginning of the year. There was success for the the CSU’s coalition partners in Bavaria, the Freie Wähler (Free Voters) with 7.5 percent, but celebrations were muted when it became clear that nationally the FW would not reach the required 5 percent threshold for joining the Bundestag. Meanwhile, serious accusations were levelled at FW leader Hubert Aiwanger who may have broken election law by tweeting out the voting projections before polling ended at 6pm.

READ ALSO: Election 2021: What a CDU-led coalition could mean for foreigners in Germany

Slight increase in voter turnout

The election might be tight nationally, with no clear overall winner, but in Bavaria there was at least something we could all celebrate: democracy. According to early figures, 79 percent of the state went out to vote on election Sunday, a small increase on 2017, suggesting that the Bavarian voting public are still politically engaged. 

So, where are we now? Well, not that much further forward. The twists and turns of the election will now make way for the twists and turns of coalition negotiations. It will be a long road. We may not have any decision until at least Christmas. Angela Merkel will remain caretaker Chancellor until her replacement is named.

The Free Voters’ Hubert Aiwanger voting in Inkofen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Armin Weigel

What role the Bavarian little sister – the CSU – will play is unclear, it very much depends on whether they seek to shift blame for the election onto the shoulders of the their sister party and its leader Armin Laschet. Although Markus Söder offered his support publicly for his colleague and chancellor candidate, it’s unclear if he will continue to support Laschet going forward.

The CSU is after all a Bavarian party and Söder may still harbour aspirations to run for the Chancellorship in 2025, anything that looks like it may damage these hopes will surely be avoided. Nothing’s for certain of course, but it’s not impossible that Markus Söder could lead his party to historic defeat and yet come out as the strongest politician in the CDU/CSU grouping. Maybe he’s not an optimist after all, perhaps Markus Söder is a clairvoyant or just incredibly lucky. 

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