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Conservatives Gird Themselves for a Bruising

The Bavarian state elections are just around the corner and the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) looks about to wave goodbye to its absolute majority. But what would that mean for Bavaria and beyond?

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With keenly awaited state elections ticking closer, Bavaria's conservative party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), is looking vulnerable. A string of forecasts have tipped the sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to lose its long-standing absolute majority in the October 14 ballot.

That would mark a major shake-up in the state, which has been effectively run by the CSU for most of the post-war period. It would also weaken the party's political punch in Berlin, where it has recently caused a string of headaches for Merkel's coalition.

Bavaria, which takes up a fifth of Germany's total area and is home to some 13 million people, is being viewed as a litmus test for the political mood nationwide. But it also has specific traits. Home to major international firms like BMW and Siemens, Bavaria has the second highest gross domestic product of any German state, underpinning its nationwide influence. That is paired with strong traditional roots, as reflected in the "laptops and lederhosen" slogan.

Political parties are vying with one another to tap into the region's niche interests, with mixed success. A series of public opinion surveys since July have shown the CSU sinking. Meanwhile, there has been an uptick in support for the Greens and especially for the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) which is siphoning support away from the traditional conservative party. This means that the election is also seen as a test of the CSU's ability to withstand the far-right populists.

And many are predicting that CSU heads will roll if the party fares as badly as forecasted. After all, the last time the party was in the doldrums in the 2008 state election, party leader Erwin Huber and Prime Minister Günther Beckstein stepped down after the CSU slipped to a low of 43.4 percent. This time round, the party would cheer such a result.

Immigration policy under scrutiny

In the run-up to the Bavarian ballot, the issue of immigration is a top talking point, with controversial posters such as the AfD's pledge for "Islam-free schools" making the headlines. Meanwhile, this year the CSU  state premier Markus Söder ruled that public buildings should display crosses, which critics saw as a bid to lure voters back from the AfD party.

The tone of the Bavarian debate resonates nationally. Immigration policy is in focus following Merkel's 2015 open border policy which led to more than a million refugees and migrants moving to Germany, many from Syria. The extent of the contention is underscored by the Bertelsmann Foundation's Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI), which saw it as a "major challenge" for the government. "This policy field still poses highly complicated questions concerning how to foster integration and steer immigration. The refugee issue has split society," it wrote. "The rise of several right-wing protest movements and the success of an anti-migration party, the AfD, indicates that part of the population is deeply distrustful of Germany's political, economic and media elites."

The CSU leader and Germany's Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has repeatedly touted an anti-immigrant line. In recent months he has become more vociferous, stepping up pressure on the Chancellor and twice threatening the German coalition government over the issue of immigration, most recently in early September

His outspoken stance has rattled a German coalition, which has been weak from the onset. It took almost six months to be formed and has always been a pragmatic rather than passionate political grouping. Seehofer's challenge reflects an unusual political constellation: Of late Merkel's biggest threat has come from within the ranks of her fellow conservatives rather than left-wing politicians.

Berlin watches Bavaria

This makes the outcome of the Bavarian election particularly relevant for Berlin. If support for the CSU slips, as expected, many will say that Seehofer's hard line on immigration has backfired. A big loss of support may even prompt him to step down as party head.

But even if her most awkward colleague steps down, Merkel's job will remain tough. After all, Seehofer is one of a number of irked politicians within the CSU, a party which is traditionally to the right of Merkel's CDU. That means that his successor will not necessarily be more amenable. Moreover, if the Bavarian conservatives shed votes to the AfD, the thorny immigration issue will remain very much center stage and the pressure on the chancellor will continue.