German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures as she attends a Christian Democratic Union leadership meeting in Berlin, Germany on October 15 2018. Picture: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures as she attends a Christian Democratic Union leadership meeting in Berlin, Germany on October 15 2018. Picture: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Sunday’s election in Bavaria, in which the long-dominant governing party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), lost its majority, showed that there’s no more business as usual in German politics — and that the change has little to do with the massively overblown immigration issue. The vote gives an important opening to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has to fight to complete her term, but also poses new risks for her.

Although German states have fewer powers than those in the US, state elections are extremely important. They are where the parties try out electoral platforms, tactics, and alliances, and where national political stars are born. Voters are active: The turnout in Bavaria on Sunday was 72.4%, only slightly lower than the 76.2% that voted at last year’s national election.

Bavaria, the state with the lowest unemployment (2.8% compared with 5.1% nationwide) and the home of top companies such as Siemens, BMW, Allianz, and Infineon Technologies, stands out even against that background. It is, for example, the only state in which Germany’s strongest party, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), does not run in elections, relying instead on a local ally, the CSU.

This has given the CSU an outsized role in national politics. It is a full-blown part of the current ruling coalition despite winning votes in just one of Germany’s 16 states. This year, it has been a nightmare coalition partner. As polls showed the CSU would not hold on to its majority in Bavaria, the party’s leadership swung to the right to avoid losing votes to the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD). The tactic resulted in CSU leader Horst Seehofer’s attempts to single-handedly limit immigration and step up deportations.

Both other parties in the nationwide coalition hated this tactic but could do little as Seehofer paralysed the government. Merkel could not fire him because she needed to preserve the CDU-CSU alliance, and she looked diminished by the strife, even helpless. This cost the CDU a drop in popularity from the nearly 33% it won in the national election last September to between 26% and 28% in current polls, the lowest the centre-right political force has ever been.

The election proved that Seehofer’s tactics had been a big mistake. With just 10.2% of the vote, the AfD did worse than in last year’s national election, when it won 12.4% in Bavaria and 12.6% nationwide. The CSU lost about 180,000 votes to the nationalist party — but it lost as many to the Greens and almost as many to the Free Voters of Bavaria, another local party with centrist politics and a focus on community affairs.

“The election in Bavaria should be a lesson to everyone who wants to lean to the right instead of relying on one’s success in the political centre,” tweeted Serap Guler, a member of the CDU federal leadership. “You don’t fight populism with populism.”

The message from conservative Bavarian voters was clear: Many would rather vote Green than back an anti-immigrant party, even if it’s a familiar one, and others just want politicians to focus on local issues, such as small business and transport. The Greens are now the second-strongest party in Bavaria with 17.5% support; they won the election in Munich, the state capital, and they’re the political force which the CSU, winner of 37.2% of the vote, could build the most popular two-party ruling coalition, though it prefers the Free Voters as a partner.

A moderate stance on immigration and more attention to local affairs and the environment probably would have given the CSU a stronger result without undermining the nationwide coalition. As it is, Seehofer in particular comes out of the election weakened, and Merkel must be quietly pleased despite a loss for her allies. Even if Seehofer manages to hold onto the party leader’s job, the idea of fighting the AfD by being more like the AfD is discredited now. The Greens’ compassionate stance on immigration aligned much better with the CSU voters’ values — and with the stance of the Bavarian Catholic Church, for that matter — than Seehofer’s attempts to shove asylum seekers back from Germany’s borders.

Merkel’s strategy of holding onto the centre rather than appeasing the nationalist fringe is suddenly looking smarter. That will help her stay on as chancellor to the end of the legislative period in 2021 and as party leader past the December leadership election. There may be less pressure on her to shift to the right, especially if the Greens also make strong gains in the next state election, in Hesse, on October 28. They appear poised to do so, perhaps even allowing the CDU to keep governing the state with them rather than build some new coalition.

One complication for Merkel is that the Social Democratic Party (SPD), part of the federal ruling coalition, did terribly in Bavaria. With 9.7% of the vote, the once-formidable workers’ party is sinking into irrelevance. Its nationwide polling numbers are dismal: It consistently lags behind the Afd now and is beginning to fall behind the Greens. The latter, with a political programme that appeals to millennials and liberal voters in general, have a chance to turn themselves from an environmentally focused party into the biggest centre-left force — the slot in the political spectrum that the SPD thought it would own forever.

Now the Social Democrats’ string of defeats means they may rethink their participation in the governing coalition; if they do, a new election is likely. Merkel would not be the conservatives’ uncontested choice to lead the CSU into it.

Merkel also may be undermined by her party’s weak performance in Hesse later this month; she will be blamed for it even if Seehofer and his allies in the CDU are really more at fault.

Both Merkel and the battered SPD could benefit, however, from moving on and finally trying to govern Germany more actively than the CSU leadership’s disruptive electoral politics allowed them to do for most of 2018. There are plenty of issues apart from immigration on which they can score wins, including dealing with impending diesel-car bans in big cities and expanding the social safety net while the strong economy allows it. If the Bavarian results are any indication, voters are getting tired of the immigration debate and hoping they get more attention from the government and politicians in general.

• Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg and its owners.