Quo Vadis CDU/CSU: The Bavarian Elections and Beyond

Michael Trinkwalder

KU Eichstätt-Ingolstadt

Michael Trinkwalder was a Research Intern at AICGS for Summer/Fall 2018. Currently, Mr. Trinkwalder is pursuing a master's degree in International Relations at the KU Eichstätt-Ingolstadt in Germany. In his program, he concentrates on issues of foreign and security policy as well as diplomatic history. He is particularly interested in transatlantic relations, the future of the EU, the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), and Chinese foreign policy. Before joining AICGS, Mr. Trinkwalder spent time abroad studying in both the UK and China and worked as a project assistant at the Aspen Institute Germany. He is a founding member of the university group for foreign and security policy at the KU Eichstätt-Ingolstadt as well as a member of the Young European Federalists.

Markus Söder has a problem. The Christian Social Union’s (CSU) Bavarian minister-president leads a party that is polling between 36 percent and 39 percent ahead of October 14’s state elections. For any other party in any other state, this would be a good—if not very good—result. However, Bavaria, which is often only half-jokingly referred to as Germany’s last one-party state, is not just any other state. The CSU has governed Bavaria without interruption since 1957—and for most of this time as the sole governing party.  At the last election in 2013, the CSU won 47.7 percent of the vote and 101 out of 180 seats in Bavaria’s parliament.

A comfortable majority—that the CSU is now almost certain to lose. Yet, at least to a certain degree, this is a crisis of the CSU’s own making. The attempt by CSU party chairman and interior minister Horst Seehofer to raise the party’s profile by provoking a government crisis over migration has backfired horribly. Instead of (re)gaining voters, the CSU dropped from 41-42 percent in June to its current low. The CSU is losing support to both the socially-liberal Greens as well as the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which now stand at 14-17 percent and 13-14 percent, respectively. But will this failure deter the CSU from attempting another gambit on the national level to rescue its Bavarian fortunes?

The CSU is losing support to both the socially-liberal Greens as well as the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

In any case, with six parties (seven if the socialist Left party manages to clear the 5 percent threshold) projected to enter parliament, the CSU is becoming the latest victim of the overall fragmentation of the German party system. This development makes forming coalitions increasingly difficult. Current polls suggest that neither a “Black-Yellow” coalition between the CSU and the  pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) nor a “Black-Orange” coalition between the CSU and the centrist Free Voters (FW) would be able to achieve a majority in the Bavarian state parliament. This means that the CSU may not be able to enter into a coalition with either one of the parties with which it has the most in common.

Other options do exist. A “Black-Green” coalition between the CSU and the Greens would command a majority and continue a trend toward “Black-Green” governments at the state level. However, there is little enthusiasm for this option in the CSU and the Greens have also moved away from a coalition due to the CSU’s hardline stance on migration. A “Black-Red” coalition between the CSU and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) is also possible, but with the SPD heading for its worst result in decades it is unlikely that it will want to replicate the federal coalition in Bavaria. Finally, there remains the elephant in the room: a “Black-Blue” coalition between the CSU and the AfD would also be mathematically possible, but the far-right AfD is the only party with which Mr. Söder has categorically ruled out a coalition.

If the CSU is unable to turn around its prospects, this leaves only two viable options for Söder: either a “Black-Orange-Yellow” coalition between the CSU, Free Voters, and the FDP or a “Black-Green” coalition between the CSU and the Greens. Stuck between an unstable three-party coalition or an alliance with a diametrically opposed party—to the proud CSU this must sound like a choice between being shot or drawn and quartered.

In 2008, when the CSU only received 43.8 percent of the vote, both the CSU party chairman Erwin Huber and Minister-President Günther Beckstein were forced to resign. Accordingly, one might think that Söder’s days are numbered; however, a credible challenger within the party is yet to emerge.

The political fragmentation we’re seeing now has implications that go far beyond the borders of Bavaria. Germany’s traditional government coalitions are simply no longer able to provide stable parliamentary majorities. Even Merkel’s ruling “grand-coalition” between the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the center-left SPD is now no longer assured.

The political fragmentation we’re seeing now has implications that go far beyond the borders of Bavaria.

Alliances that have long been inconceivable are now being considered. Just a few weeks ago Schleswig-Holstein’s CDU minister-president Daniel Günther suggested that the party should at least think about entering into coalitions with the socialist Left. For many in the CDU just talking about the possibility of forming a coalition with the successor of East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party (SED) is anathema. Unsurprisingly, Günther was harshly criticized by multiple CDU minister-presidents, the party executive, and even Chancellor Merkel herself.

But, for how much longer can German parties afford to categorically rule-out certain coalitions? Already, local CSU politicians are beginning to call for coalitions with the AfD and Brandenburg’s CDU chairman Ingo Senftleben has announced that he intends to enter into talks with both the AfD as well as the Left after the 2019 state elections. Something’s got to give in Germany’s party system. The only question is: what will it be?

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.