Merkel's Most Powerful Ally Tried To Mimic The Far-Right — And Got Trounced

When establishment parties shift to the right, it can backfire in a big way.

Germany’s dominant Christian Social Union party thought it would outsmart the far-right in Sunday’s regional election by copying its nativist rhetoric and hard line on immigration. Instead it got hammered. The party’s heavy losses are the latest sign that establishment parties set themselves up for defeat if they let the far-right frame the political debate, and fail to provide a vision of their own.

The CSU took home 37.5 percent of the votes in the southern region of Bavaria on Sunday ― a 10 percent drop from its previous result and its poorest performance since 1950. Meanwhile, the far-right Alternative for Germany party gained almost the exact share of the vote the CSU lost and entered Bavarian parliament for the first time with 10.2 percent of the vote.

In the year leading up to the vote, the CSU, which is the sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, shifted to the right on issues of migration and border control. CSU leader Horst Seehofer, who is also Germany’s interior minister, nearly brought down the government over the summer when he clashed with Merkel over his demands for stricter border policies. He called migration “the mother of all problems” and earlier this year said “Islam is not a part of Germany.”

After violent far-right protests in the city of Chemnitz became a national issue and prompted Merkel’s condemnation, Seehofer offered sympathy for the demonstrators and said that if he wasn’t a politician he would have joined them. On his 69th birthday in July, Seehofer cheered the deportation of 69 Afghan asylum seekers ― one of whom later killed himself after arriving in Kabul.

But instead of undercutting the rising support for the AfD, Seehofer ended up losing voters and alienating his party’s base in the process.

Rather than opt for a less extreme version of the AfD with Seehofer, far-right voters prefered the genuine article to an imitation. While the CSU failed to win back supporters from the far-right, it also lost them to the left. The pro-immigration Green party, which came in second in the vote, picked up thousands of CSU voters who rejected Seehofer’s platform.

After the election, senior CSU members acknowledged the party miscalculated in its fixation on migration.

“You can’t gain from the right what you will lose in the center. The results today suggest as much,” Babara Stamm, a top CSU official, told Politico Europe.

Horst Seehofer's sympathy for the far-right backfired in a big way.
Horst Seehofer's sympathy for the far-right backfired in a big way.

The CSU isn’t the only party in Europe which had its rightward shift backfire. Seehofer’s staunch anti-immigration and anti-Islam rhetoric fits a pattern of politicians across Europe who have tried to deal with pressure from the far-right by embracing more populist rhetoric and anti-immigration policies. Last month in Sweden, for instance, the country’s left-wing Social Democrats had their worst result in generations after legitimizing some of the far-right’s views and neglecting issues outside of immigration.

Bavaria’s vote also reflected a larger shift in German politics, as recent elections have left a fractured political landscape after decades of political stability. Instead, smaller parties are increasingly making gains and traditionally powerful parties are finding it harder to form governments.

Despite the CSU’s poor performance, the biggest loser of the vote was the center-left Social Democrat Party, which fell into crisis since suffering historic losses in the national election last year and finished fourth in Bavaria with less than 10 percent of the vote. Liberal and pro-immigration voters instead flocked to the left-wing, environmentalist Green Party, which won 17.5 percent of the vote on Sunday.

A poll in the lead-up to the vote estimated that around a quarter of the Greens’ new supporters also came from the CSU, second only to the Social Democrats. Unlike the CSU, the Greens didn’t let the far-right dictate their discourse and instead focused not only on immigration but on the broader range of issues that matter to voters.

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