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CCSDD | State Parliament Elections in Bavaria and Hesse
State Parliament Elections in Bavaria and Hesse
Valuable Lessons for All of Germany

Hanna Gesang

State Parliament Elections in Bavaria and Hesse
Hanna Gesang
October 12, 2023

On Sunday, October 8th, the German federal states Bavaria and Hesse went to the polls to elect their state parliaments. The results largely fulfilled the predictions of the polls, but that does not mean that they are unremarkable. While regional elections should not be used as a sort of crystal ball for the next Bundestag elections – which will take place in 2025 – European neighbours would be well advised to keep a close eye on what happened on Sunday.

The political parties that are likely to shape Bavarian politics over the next few years require a brief introduction. The Christian Social Union in Bavaria, which is usually referred to by its acronym "CSU", is sometimes described as the sister party of the bigger Christian Democratic Union (CDU). They form a joint parliamentary group at federal level, and at regional level, the CSU competes exclusively in Bavaria. The CSU's past and likely future coalition partner is less well-known internationally. The Free Voters of Bavaria, "FW", compete in several German regions but have only ever entered the state parliaments of Bavaria and Rhineland-Palatinate. They can be broadly categorised as a centre-right party, especially on social issues, but there is a great deal of ideological diversity within the party stemming from its origins as an association of independent candidates. The CSU-FW coalition has been confirmed in office, with the CSU losing 0.2 percentage points and the FW gaining 4.2 percentage points. The parties of the traffic light coalition all lost, with the FDP not surpassing the 5%-hurdle needed to enter parliament and the SPD reaching an all-time low in Bavaria at 8.4%. The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) reached a record high of 14.6% in Bavaria.

In Hesse, the CDU gained 7.6 percentage points, reaching 34.6% of the total vote share. Its coalition partner, the Greens, lost 5 percentage points. The SPD and FDP also suffered significant losses, with the FDP barely making it into parliament. The Left Party ("Die Linke") failed to pass the 5% hurdle whereas the AfD had one of its most successful elections ever in western Germany.

There are a few key takeaways of national and potentially European importance here.

These elections were about national politics, and the traffic light coalition is the big loser.

Especially compared to the results that the CSU used to achieve in Bavaria, this is not a decisive victory for its leader, Markus Söder. His hopes of being nominated as the CDU/CSU's candidate for chancellor are likely to have been dampened by the fact that the FW gained more than the CSU did. Yet, this is also not a win for CDU leader Friedrich Merz. Boris Rhein, victorious candidate of the CDU in Hesse, was praised for distancing himself from Merz, who has recently sparked controversy with statements on asylum seekers. The consequences for intra-party rivalries may be unclear, but overall, it was a day of celebration for the CDU/CSU.

Things look much bleaker for the SPD. Hesse, unlike Bavaria, used to be the SPD's heartland. The failure to win it back is all the more devastating given that the SPD's candidate was Nancy Faeser, currently the interior minister under Olaf Scholz. The affiliation with the federal government seems to have hurt more than helped her party, as many citizens perceived Faeser as not fully committed to Hesse. Scholz continues to support her and says that she will remain in office – whether this is politically viable remains to be seen.

National issues far outweighed regional ones in both elections. This makes it even more significant that the "traffic light coalition" of SPD, Greens and FDP lost both elections. In the exit polls, voters expressed their dissatisfaction with the national government's policies. The FDP has now performed poorly in all eight state elections since the national government was formed. In Hesse, the Greens suffered a 5 percentage point loss, despite voters being relatively satisfied with the performance of the CDU-Green coalition government. This is likely to reverberate all the way to Berlin, making a coalition already criticised by voters for its constant bickering even more unstable.

In Bavaria, the right-wing populists have won – and so has the AfD.

Just a few weeks before the election, FW leader Aiwanger made national headlines. A leaflet containing Nazi rhetoric that he had distributed as a high school student had surfaced, and his subsequent apology was criticised as half-hearted. Despite this, the FW managed to improve their 2018 election results - in the eyes of their voters, the scandal didn't make them any less electable. Aiwanger has now begun to publicly consider running in the next federal election. It is likely that he senses an opening for a right-wing party somewhere between the CDU/CSU and the AfD. However, Aiwanger has always had a strong Bavarian focus, both in terms of issues and rhetoric. Moreover, most of its new voters came from its coalition partner, not from the AfD. It is not clear if the success in Bavaria would translate into a good result in a national election.

By winning 14.6% despite the victory of the right-wing coalition, the AfD has proved that it now has its own voter base - also in western Germany. Given its even better results in Hesse, no one can seriously consider it an "eastern phenomenon" anymore. It has a nationwide presence and is here to stay. In the cases of Hesse and Bavaria, coalition talks will not be hindered by the AfD's results, as there are still plenty of other options. In Hesse, the CDU-Green coalition could continue to govern, but Rhein has already said that he will also negotiate with the SPD. In Bavaria, the CSU and FW will continue to govern, but competition within the coalition is likely to increase after this election.

If the polls for next year's elections in eastern Germany are as accurate as they were this time, things will be very different in Brandenburg, Saxony, and Thuringia. The AfD could even become the strongest party there - current polls show it at 32% in Thuringia.

Journalists have described the exit poll interviews as being dominated by a climate of worry. Voters are concerned about the economy, migration, climate change, energy supply and foreign politics. These elections took place exactly at the halfway point of Scholz's traffic light coalition, and they should serve as a warning: The to-do list ahead seems longer than ever, and the threat of the AfD looms ever larger.


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