Bavarian lessons: When aping the far right backfires

With the German socialists in terminal decline, the Greens’ victory serves as a warning to other parties pandering to xenophobic instincts by emphasising the defence of identity and decrying the increase of foreign workers

Celebration for the Greens: they took some 200,000 votes from the CSU fall-out
Celebration for the Greens: they took some 200,000 votes from the CSU fall-out

The elections in Bavaria are cautionary lesson for mainstream parties who try to ape the far right in  the hope of stopping its advance. 

That’s what the mainstream centre-right Christian Social Union did. Not only did they not stop the far right from taking their first seats in the state legislature, but they also lost 200,000 votes to the Green Party, which found a new appeal among churchgoing civic-minded conservatives. 

Bavaria is a rich and relatively socially-conservative German region long dominated by the Christian Social Union, a party which at national level cooperates with the more centrist Christian Democratic Union, often acting as its more conservative counterweight.      

Angela Merkel’s decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter Germany and the subsequent rise of the xenophobic AFD (Alternative for Germany) put the CSU in a quandary about how to stop the drift to the right. The result was an attempt to lure voters away from the far right by co-opting some of their ideas. One highly symbolic measure was that of putting back crucifixes in public buildings. “The cross is a fundamental symbol of our Bavarian identity and way of life,” said Bavaria’s chief minister Markus Söder, as he hung a cross in the lobby of the state government’s headquarters in Munich, directly after the rule was passed. 

Party2018Difference since 2013

But this decision was met with derision among Catholic church leaders like Cardinal Reinhard Marx who retorted: “If the cross is just seen as a cultural symbol, then it has not been understood… The cross was a sign of opposition to violence, injustice, sin and death but not a sign against other people.” 

Unsurprisingly, many civic-minded Bavarian Catholics, especially those involved in voluntary organisations, found refuge in the German Greens, who in some ways give a new meaning to the word “conservative” by emphasising the need to protect nature and the planet, something that is in line with Papal encyclicals. 

Polls suggest that the CSU lost more votes to the Greens (200,000) than to the far right (180,000). Although rooted in the 1968 students’ revolt, the Greens now stand for fiscal responsibility and for more European integration. In Bavaria the Greens, once considered a far-left outfit, attracted almost as many votes from CSU (200,000) as from SPD (210,000).   

It is not a surprise that with the German socialists in terminal decline, the Greens are increasingly seen as the CDU’s most likely coalition partner at national level. This may well serve as a warning to other Christian Democratic parties – even Adrian Delia’s PN – who in recent months have been trying to pander to xenophobic instincts by emphasising the defence of identity and vaguely decrying the increase of foreign workers.   

So far, the PN does not face competition from an outfit similar to the German Greens who tend to appeal to the educated middle-class and are themselves a product of a more prosperous society where environmental issues take more prominence. Yet even in Malta, which is experiencing a different kind of boom, one is seeing signs of civic-minded opposition to unbridled growth, which may with time evolve and aspire to political representation. 

One lesson for third-party politicians in Malta who tend to be isolationist or too anchored on one side of the spectrum, is the flexibility of the German Greens who presently govern three German regions along with the CDU, one region with the CDU and SPD, two regions with the SPD and the left, one region with the SPD and the Liberals and two regions with the SPD alone. 

Despite having a strong identity on the left side of the spectrum, the Greens have shown a remarkable ability to work with all political parties except for the extreme right. 

While the Greens in Malta face a more difficult electoral system especially at national level, they may have something to learn from the ability of the German Greens to grow at local level. 

Socialists in free-fall 

The Bavarian elections, along with similar results in Belgian local elections and in Luxembourg, were a clear indication that the European Socialists are in free-fall.  

In all three elections the Greens surpassed or have been close to displace the Socialists as the main force on the centre left. Only Spain and Portugal, where the Socialists govern with the more radical left-wing movements like Podemos and the left bloc, seem to be defying the trend.  

The other exception is Malta where Labour enjoys an insurmountable lead but this may well be a result of its ability to reinvent itself as Malta’s pro-business party while retaining its hold on its traditional working-class base through cash transfers funded by new sources of income like the sale of passports through the IIP and through an increase in the tax base by attracting more foreign workers, instead of raising taxes.  

Yet this balancing act is pregnant with contradictions, which may surface in the coming years. The collapse of the German Social Democrats may also spur Muscat to search for new European allies among the Liberals, especially if he is still interested in a top EU position.  

The rise of the German Greens, especially if they get back in to the national government, may also spell bad news for Joseph Muscat, as this will strengthen those elements in Europe who support increased harmonisation of tax policies. 

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