Progress | Centre-left Labour politics
Germany's centre is struggling under pressure from the AfD – their leader pictured here giving a speech

The centre cannot hold

With the Bavarian state elections fast approaching – there is bad news for progressives. The collapse of Germany’s centre-ground and the rise of the far-right looks set to continue, warns Penny Bochum

Since the Christian Democratic Union and its conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, went into a shaky coalition with the reluctant Social Democratic party following the 2017 election, their poll numbers have been in free-fall.

Meanwhile, the far-right populist party, the Alternative for Germany, which entered parliament for the first time in 2017, has gone from strength to strength.  Several recent polls have put the party in second place nationally, ahead of the centre-left SPD. This is on a backdrop of anti-foreigner violence with mobs chanting Nazi slogans and giving Nazi salutes, combined with a government close to collapse from splits over refugees.

The CSU has won a majority in Bavaria in every election since the end of the war, sometimes with over 60 per cent of the vote, but polls heading into this Sunday’s Bavarian election are currently showing the CSU on 35 per cent (well below the 47.7 per cent they won in 2013), the Greens in second place on around 16 per cent and the SPD at 13. With the AfD marginally behind on 12, the far-right are set to take a seat in the Bavarian state parliament for the first time.

As soon as the new national government was formed in March, Seehofer echoed the AfD by saying that ‘Islam does not belong in Germany’

The fragmentation of politics in Bavaria is a microcosm of national politics in Germany. The re-energised Green party, which elected new co-leaders in January, is due to overtake the SPD as the strongest party on the left.  The most important – and most worrying – rise is that of the AfD, which not only won votes from nearly one and a half million previous non-voters in 2017, but also from one million former CDU/CSU supporters, half a million SPD voters and 400,000 former Left party voters. The AfD’s success has not just been limited to voters either – they have fundamentally shifted the debate.

This year, the CSU has lurched rightwards in a bid to win voters from the AfD. Horst Seehofer, the head of the CSU and German interior minister, has been a key driver of this, against the advice of high ranking members of his own party. As soon as the new national government was formed in March, Seehofer echoed the AfD by saying that ‘Islam does not belong in Germany’.

Seehofer has been a persistent critic of Merkel’s liberal immigration policy, and in the summer he threatened to resign if the issue of asylum seekers registered in other EU countries traveling on to Germany was not resolved.  Bavaria is a main route for this relatively small number of asylum seekers, and Seehofer was accused of attempting to capitalise on right-wing populism by fighting on this issue.  Seehofer boasted on his 69th birthday that 69 failed asylum seekers had been returned to Afghanistan. And he is not alone: earlier this summer Markus Söder, Bavaria’s CSU minister president, enacted legislation obliging all public buildings to display crosses.

In amongst this political upheaval, Nahles is rightly positioning herself as someone who will call out any leader who decides to punch down

SPD leader Andrea Nahles has been a welcome voice of reason. She has argued that the ‘shoddy politics’ of Seehofer and his colleagues, which takes aim at the weakest in society, means the CSU deserve to lose their majority in Bavaria. In amongst this political upheaval, Nahles is rightly positioning herself as someone who will call out any leader who decides to punch down.

Thankfully, these moves seem to have backfired for the CSU; their predicted vote share is still falling. Polls found that two thirds of voters in Bavaria supported the more liberal Merkel above Seehofer, and that the CSU and Markus Söder were perceived to be a bigger problem than refugees. It appears as though the arguing over the summer between the CDU and the CSU has done less damage to Merkel than to Seehofer. Merkel’s position is not strong, however. Her approval ratings have dropped 20 points from this time last year.

Read next: SPD – A people’s party without the people

But the most important elections come next year. Elections for the European parliament and state parliaments in the eastern states of Saxony and Thuringia are all likely to see more gains for the AfD.  In east Germany, the AfD is in first place and there is a good chance that 2019 will see it in state government.

All these polls are a reminder of an uncomfortable truth: in a country that was thought to have banished the far-right permanently from the horror of its history, the centre-ground is not holding and signs of recovery are not coming fast enough.

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Penny Bochum is a writer for Progress. She tweets @PennyBochum

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Photo: Robin Krahl / Wikimedia Commons

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