Warning for German government as far-right win local elections
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Munich: German voters have handed a victory to far-right conservatives in a state election in Bavaria and the smaller central state of Hesse, while punishing the three parties running the country.
While all three of the governing parties lost votes, symbolically at least, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AdF) and another populist party were the evening’s clear victors, notching record results in both states when compared with other western states.
An election poster of right wing party AfD is fixed on a pole during the Hesse federal state election in Frankfurt, Germany.Credit: AP
The results were considered an important midterm report card for the national coalition government of Social Democratic Chancellor Olaf Scholz, which received some tough grades. They were also seen as a bellwether of the larger political trends building in the country, not least the fracturing of the political landscape as populist and far-right parties make inroads.
In Bavaria, the conservative Christian Social Union, which has governed the southern region for nearly seven decades, received its lowest level of support in more than 50 years, garnering less than 37 per cent of the vote, according to preliminary results.
That will allow incumbent Governor Markus Söder to serve another term, but only in coalition with the populist Free Voters, who came in at well over 15 per cent, despite a last-minute antis-Semitism scandal involving the party’s firebrand leader, Hubert Aiwanger.
In Hesse, which takes in Frankfurt but has fewer than half the voters of Bavaria, the incumbent governor for the conservative Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, won a decisive victory after an ineffective campaign by the federal interior minister, who ran for the Social Democrats and came in third, behind the far-right AfD.
Hubert Aiwanger, leader of the firebrand Free Voters.Credit: Getty
But it was the vote in Bavaria that was the most closely watched, and the outcome was taken as further evidence of the erosion of Germany’s traditional mainstream political parties, left and right. It is a phenomenon that has been witnessed across Europe, in Spain, Italy, France, and in Scandinavian countries.
Less than a generation ago, the Christian Social Union (CSU) could depend on the support of large masses of German voters, earning it the name Volkspartei, or people’s party. That’s no longer the case.
“The crisis of the mainstream parties has also reached Bavaria and is hitting the CSU with increasing force,” said Thomas Schlemmer, a historian of Bavarian politics. “Today, you vote based on your individual lifestyle, not because of tradition.”
Even before Sunday’s vote, Söder and his CSU were having to govern in coalition with the Free Voters. Now, they will be even more dependent on the Free Voters, underscoring the CSU’s increasing vulnerability.
Protesters carry signs saying, “We are governed by idiots” before the weekend voting in two western German states.Credit: Getty
Much the same has happened nationally to its sister party, the much larger CDU, the party of former chancellor Angela Merkel, as centre-right support has been eaten into by populist and extremist parties including AfD.
Virtually the only reason the AfD, which came in second at just under 16 per cent, did not do better in Bavaria was the presence of Free Voters, a homegrown Bavarian party with populist tendencies, which split the right-wing vote.
The Free Voters’ outsize role has underscored the rise of populist forces nationwide.
The party, founded by independent municipal and district politicians in 2009, is playing an ever-larger role in Bavarian state politics, where it is once again expected to be the junior partner in the state coalition.
Aiwanger, a fiery beer-tent speaker, has become the face of the party, bringing it further towards populism by criticising immigration and environmental legislation.
Aiwanger recently called for the “silent majority” to “take back democracy” from the government in Berlin, language that for many Germans evoked the country’s Nazi past. Although he was criticised by other politicians and the mainstream news media, the speech did nothing to quell his popularity among voters.
“The success of the Free Voters is due to Hubert Aiwanger’s populist impulses and not to the constructive policies they have pursued in the municipalities for many decades,” said Roman Deininger, a reporter with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a daily newspaper based in Munich, who has followed Bavarian politics for decades.
Aiwanger and his party managed to succeed despite a scandal in August, when he was discovered to have had a homemade antisemitic pamphlet in his possession while in high school in the 1980s.
German Chancellor Olaf Sholz’s government did not have a good weekend at the polls.Credit: Bloomberg
Aiwanger quickly turned the scandal into an advantage, claiming that the newspaper that broke the story had waited until the heat of the campaign to discredit him. Voters apparently believed the narrative: Aiwanger and his party saw a bump in polling numbers.
Throughout the campaign, conservative and populist parties made the left-leaning environmentalist Green party a stand-in for Scholz’s governing coalition.
The Greens are just one of three parties in the coalition, along with the centre-left Social Democrats and the pro-business Free Democrats, they were singled out for special apathy.
During one campaign appearance, candidates Katharina Schulze and Ludwig Hartmann were onstage when a man in the crowd threw a stone at them.
“That really was a shock,” Schulze, who campaigns with a police security detail, said in an interview.
Despite that, the Greens in Bavaria came in at well over 14 per cent.
Söder, the governor, vowed he would not form a coalition with the Greens — even though Sunday’s election returns gave him the numbers to do so — and instead said he would continue in coalition with the populist Free Voters.
“With their worldview, the Greens do not fit Bavaria, and that is why there will be no Greens in the Bavarian state government,” Söder said during a campaign stop in September. “No way!”
Although the results in Bavaria have no direct consequence on the government in Berlin, all three parties in the national coalition lost significant voter share in the election.
The liberal Free Democratic Party, which occupies the important post of finance minister, is predicted to fail entry into the state house because of its bad showing.
That portends badly for Scholz, who is about two years into a four-year term, especially because parties in Bavaria ran against his coalition in Berlin as much as against each other.
In their stump speeches, both Söder and Aiwanger made dissatisfaction with the Berlin government their theme, railing against perceived dictums on gender-neutral speech, vegetarianism and rules for heating private homes — a Green party push that has engendered special animus.
They also pushed back against the unpopular decision to close the three remaining nuclear power plants this past April.
While such statements are typical of over-the-top campaigning, a recent opinion poll shows that 79 per cent of Germans are unhappy with the coalition. Only 19 per cent are satisfied with its work.
Those are the government’s lowest approval ratings since it was formed in December 2021.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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