Bavaria, the second largest of Germany’s states, held a general election on Sunday, 15 September. This election was exactly one week before Bavarians will be called back to the polls in a federal election. (How common, in Germany or anywhere else, is it for national and sub-national elections to be a week apart? Not very, I suppose.)
The Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian counterpart to the federal Christian Democrats of Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU elsewhere), won an absolute majority of seats. This is actually not unusual; it has happened many times before, because Bavaria is strongly conservative in its politics.
This year’s majority was manufactured by the electoral system. This is presumably a bit more unusual in any German state, given the use of proportional systems (MMP is used in Bavaria, broadly similar to the federal system, while a couple of small states use pure PR). The CSU won 56.1% of seats on 47.7% of the votes. Other than 2008, this is a pretty bad outcome for them. As recently as 2003, the party had a three-fifths majority of the vote. I am not sure how frequently it had failed to win a majority of the vote previously, but I think CSU majorities were the norm before 2008. So this election represents a modest recovery, but is still a rather poor result for the party historically.
The Free Democratic Party (FDP), federal governing partners to the Christian Democrats, did not clear the threshold, winning only 3% of the vote–their wasted votes thereby contributing to the CSU’s manufactured majority. ((14.1% of the vote was cast for parties failing to clear the threshold, which I suppose is quite high for any German election. Four parties had at least 2%, including the Linke, the Pirates, and a separatist party.)) This may seem like a big deal, and it certainly is for the FDP. But, unlike at the federal level, the FDP is not a party that has been securely over the threshold in any case. It did not clear it in 2003, for example, when it won only 2.6%. And it won only 1.7% in 1998. Apparently the 2008 election, in which it won 8%, was the outlier for the FDP in Bavarian state politics. ((It tends to do better within the state in elections to the federal legislature. For instance, it won 14.7% of the list vote in the state in 2009 (almost identical to its 14.6% nationwide) and 9.5% in 2005 (9.8% nationwide).))
Given the close proximity of this election to the federal election, it is predictable that it is being hailed as an “election tailwind” for Merkel. But one should be cautious. Bavaria is, as I already alluded to, rather different politically from Germany as a whole. One key difference is the presence of a regional party. No, not the CSU, which has the CDU counterpart elsewhere. The “Free Voters” (FW) have no counterpart elsewhere. They won 9% of the vote in this election, slightly down from 10.2% in 2008, which was itself a dramatic surge from their below-threshold 4% of 2003.
Meanwhile, much has been made in various news reports of the struggles of the Greens. Yet they won 8.6% in this election, compared to 9.4% in 2008, and 7.7% in 2003. Those seem like fairly minor fluctuations. ((In the last three federal elections, the Greens had list-vote levels in Bavaria that were almost identical to the party’s nationwide share, and also not too different from the most proximal state election.))
The Social Democrats (SPD) actually increased their support from 2008: to 20.6% from 18.6%.
Consider that the combined CSU+FDP vote (i.e. the equivalent of Merkel’s coalition) won 51.4% of the vote in 2008, and 51.0% in 2013, while the main potential alternative federal coalition of SPD+Green won 29.2% in 2008 and 28% in 2013, and it seems like less than a “tailwind” for Merkel. Maybe we will yet see a bigger shift in the federal election. Bavaria itself can only shift so far, given it already leans so far right. But I’d be more cautious.
It is, of course, entirely possible that the federal result will be bad for the FDP, too, and that the CDU/CSU will end up governing with the SPD, rather than the FDP. As we have already discussed, we should stop calling this a “grand coalition”. It may just be one of the regularly occurring governing formulas in Germany as its party system has evolved. Who knows, the Christian Democrats governing with the Social Democrats as a junior partner could even be in Bavaria’s future, ((I am assuming this would be the CSU’s preference over taking on the FW as a partner, if the FDP did not return to an above-threshold vote.)) if the CSU continues to struggle to get over 50%.