The 2018 Bavarian Election: Earthquake or Tremor?

Eric Langenbacher

Senior Fellow; Director, Society, Culture & Politics Program

Dr. Eric Langenbacher is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Society, Culture & Politics Program at AICGS.

Dr. Langenbacher studied in Canada before completing his PhD in Georgetown University’s Government Department in 2002. His research interests include collective memory, political culture, and electoral politics in Germany and Europe. Recent publications include the edited volumes Twilight of the Merkel Era: Power and Politics in Germany after the 2017 Bundestag Election (2019), The Merkel Republic: The 2013 Bundestag Election and its Consequences (2015), Dynamics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary Europe (co-edited with Ruth Wittlinger and Bill Niven, 2013), Power and the Past: Collective Memory and International Relations (co-edited with Yossi Shain, 2010), and From the Bonn to the Berlin Republic: Germany at the Twentieth Anniversary of Unification (co-edited with Jeffrey J. Anderson, 2010). With David Conradt, he is also the author of The German Polity, 10th and 11th edition (2013, 2017).

Dr. Langenbacher remains affiliated with Georgetown University as Teaching Professor and Director of the Honors Program in the Department of Government. He has also taught at George Washington University, Washington College, The University of Navarre, and the Universidad Nacional de General San Martin in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and has given talks across the world. He was selected Faculty Member of the Year by the School of Foreign Service in 2009 and was awarded a Fulbright grant in 1999-2000 and the Hopper Memorial Fellowship at Georgetown in 2000-2001. Since 2005, he has also been Managing Editor of German Politics and Society, which is housed in Georgetown’s BMW Center for German and European Studies. Dr. Langenbacher has also planned and run dozens of short programs for groups from abroad, as well as for the U.S. Departments of State and Defense on a variety of topics pertaining to American and comparative politics, business, culture, and public policy.


Bavaria looms large in Germany. With 16 percent of the country’s population (13 million inhabitants), it is the second-largest state by population, and the largest by geographic area. Its economy accounts for over 18 percent of the country’s total, and hosts innumerable world-class companies like BMW, Audi, Allianz, Adidas, Puma, Loewe, Faber-Castell, and Infineon.

This proud free state (Freistaat) in the southeast has always been distinctive—maintaining its independence from other German states until unification in 1870-71 and retaining its own king until just about 100 years ago. Its dialect is unique, and, rather more so than other states and regions in the country, it takes its Heimat very seriously—even having a ministry devoted to the topic. Lederhosen, dirndls (including a Tracht revival among young people), Hefeweizen, Oktoberfest, and the Catholic Church are still central components to regional identity.

Perhaps in no other area has Bavaria been more distinctive as with its politics. Bavaria is the only German state to have its own political party—the Christian Social Union (CSU). It is in a perpetual alliance with the Christian Democrats (CDU) at the federal level and the parties have a deal that they will not run candidates in the other’s domain. The CSU has dominated politics in the free state since the founding of the Federal Republic. With roots in the Catholic Center Party (Zentrum) of the First Empire and Weimar Republic, this socially conservative party has been intimately intertwined with the narrative of postwar Bavaria, rising from a rural backwater to one of the richest, most influential, most conservative of all German states.

State elections—with variable and uncoordinated dates—have come to be seen as referendums on the performance and popularity of the national government at a point in time.

Given the importance of Bavaria in the country overall, elections for its parliament (Landtag) always matter for national politics. But the October 14, 2018, election mattered more than most. First, state elections—with variable and uncoordinated dates—have come to be seen as referendums on the performance and popularity of the national government at a point in time. The Bavarian election was the first such poll since the new grand coalition government (CDU/CSU-SPD) was formed earlier this year. Not only did it take nearly six months after the 2017 Bundestag elections for a seriously weakened Chancellor Angela Merkel to negotiate this government, but it has been hugely unpopular from the very beginning and severe tensions have plagued it continuously. Especially the CSU and its leader, interior minister Horst Seehofer, have caused problems—almost bringing down the government twice over the summer. Indeed, political observers have been on a kind of death watch for months, with many thinking the elections in Bavaria could lead to its implosion and new elections nationally.

All of these developments heightened the attention devoted to the Bavarian election. For quite some time, the polls had predicted heavy losses for the CSU, which had gained 47.7 percent of the vote in 2013 and had been ruling with an absolute majority. In early October, the CSU was hovering around 33 to 35%, the Greens at 18%, the SPD at 12%, the right-populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Freie Wähler (Free Voters, a center-right grouping) at 10% (some polls had the AfD as high as 14%), and the Liberals (FDP) at 5.5% (the Left was at 4.5% and others at about 5%).

In the end it was not nearly as bad for the CSU as predicted.

In the end it was not nearly as bad for the CSU as predicted when they achieved 37.2%, which was 2 to 4% better than the last pre-election polls showed. The SPD did worse than predicted at 9.6%. The Greens had an excellent night at 17.5% (although a little less than polling had predicted), dominating in the cities where they also picked up their first-ever direct mandates in Munich and Würzburg. The FDP scraped in just over the electoral threshold at 5% (the Left did not make it with 3%). Finally, the AfD secured 10.3% and the Free Voters 11.5% (an increase of 2.5% compared to 2013).

On election night the headlines proclaimed an “electoral earthquake,” “debacle,” “disastrous result,” and that “the old CSU is dead.” Despite this breathless rhetoric, every observer saw this coming—the polls have been unequivocal for months. Moreover, in deeper context, the CSU got 38.8 percent in the Bundestag election about a year ago in 2017. Thus, the CSU really did only marginally worse. The AfD got 12.4 percent in Bavaria in 2017, so this time it actually came in 2 percent below that result. Perhaps this is an indication that we are past peak populism, as some have already noted in other contexts. Moreover, multiparty parliaments and coalition governments have long been the norm elsewhere in Germany. Bavaria was different (once again) for the anomalous string of single-party majority governments, so finally looks like the rest of the country politically.

Still, many observers are scratching their heads a little. The economy is doing exceptionally well in Bavaria and has been for quite some time. Currently, the unemployment rate is 2.8 percent, identical to the GDP growth rate in 2017. The state has some of the best schools and universities in the country. There is a reason that the CSU has governed the free state uninterruptedly with an absolute majority (except once) since 1957. This is the kind of record that politicians can usually only dream about.

What, then, explains the results?


A sixty-year run of one-party rule is rather extraordinary under most democratic circumstances, but especially in the context of an increasingly educated and sophisticated electorate as in Bavaria. The ability of the CSU to renew itself and especially its series of patriarch-leaders (Alfons Goppel, Franz Josef Strauss, Edmund Stoiber, Seehofer) has previously been a key to its success. The current generation of leaders is lackluster (perhaps too “male” for contemporary preferences?) and certainly seems to have lost its magic touch. Seehofer, party leader and minister president for a decade until he became interior minister in Berlin, generated little enthusiasm even before his move to the right over the last year or two. Markus Söder, minister president since early 2018, is a gruff, ambitious, old-style conservative. His harsh stance on migration, impolitic rhetoric (“asylum tourism” or Asyltourismus), and decision to install crucifixes in all state offices has not stopped the rise of the AfD or rallied supporters other than part of the hard-core CSU base. Söder seemed increasingly desperate, exemplified by plans announced for a Bavarian space program. More centrist, urban voters supportive of diversity defected to the Greens in droves. Maybe even Bavarians are truly, finally ready for a change away from a party that has governed (the economy at least) quite well, but has lost its way currently. Voters might see it as a kind of luxury to defect to other parties precisely because of the CSU’s strong governing record—they can take a chance precisely because things are going so well.

The grand coalition.

Söder has explicitly blamed the federal coalition for his party’s plight. Despite the CSU’s constant provocations within the government—at least since Merkel’s migration policy shift in 2015—this has not stanched the defection (or death) of CSU voters in Bavaria. Many have argued that grand coalitions, by leaving so little space for opposition, incentivize radical parties (such as the right-radical NPD after the 1966-69 version). A similar effect from the 2013-present grand coalition (and also 2005-2009) may be empowering the AfD. Similar to the national level, the SPD seems to be particularly impacted, having lost its distinctive profile and achieving less than 10 percent in the polls—half of its level of 2013 (also losing many voters to the AfD). In fact, workers chose the AfD as their second-favorite option after the CSU. More generally, political science research shows that parties governing nationally do much worse in regional elections.


Like elsewhere in Germany, the AfD is disrupting Bavarian politics—even if it underperformed polling on election day. Having siphoned many votes from the increasingly right-wing CSU, it positions itself as “the real thing.” Its campaign messaging—trolling would be more apt—dates back to the fall 2017 Bundestag election (“Franz Josef Strauss would vote for the AfD”) and continues now. Campaign posters continue with the right-populist slogans: “Take your land back” (Hol dir Dein Land zurück!); “Security for our wives and daughters” (Sicherheit für unsere Frauen und Töchter); “Money for pensions, not illegal migrants” (Geld für Renten, statt illegale Migranten); “The AfD does, what the CSU only promises” (Die AfD hält was die CSU verspricht). Given that the AfD is still not considered an acceptable coalition partner, the party’s twenty-two seats have truncated the seats available for coalition formation. Other indirect effects included forcing CSU party leaders to the right, which not only failed to eliminate the threat from the AfD, but it alienated more moderate voters, boosting the Greens.

Structural changes.

Bavaria is not and never has been a homogenous entity—Franconia in the north is quite different from “old” Bavaria (Altbayern). The more liberal cities have long diverged from the arch-conservative countryside. Contrary to popular belief, the state is not uniformly Catholic, despite the seeming centrality of the Church to Bavarian identity (crucifixes in public buildings; Pope Benedict XVI was born in Marktl and was Archbishop of Munich and Freising). In fact, self-identified Catholics are just over 50 percent of the population currently and church attendance is low almost everywhere. Moreover, 21.3 percent of the state’s population has a migration background—two-thirds of those people have a personal migration background and 11.5 percent have a foreign passport. In Munich, over 27 percent of the population is foreign and a further 15 percent have a migration background. In Nürnberg, 45 percent of residents have a migration background and 22.6 percent have foreign citizenship.

Catholicism just does not matter like it did before. Priests have marginal influence on the vote—the never-ending abuse scandals do not help. Diversity is high especially in the cities and will only increase given the state’s dynamic economy. The CSU is alienating a fifth to a quarter of the electorate. The deep black rural areas continue to lose people—1 in 5 Bavarians now live in and around Munich alone. Moreover, the decline of the traditional working class has decimated the SPD and created challenges for the CSU as well. Trade unions are no longer that capable of reaching voters. The typical voter today is not tied to mobilizing agents like the churches, unions, or political parties (which also benefitted so much in the past from the support of these intermediary associations).

National and international issues and Zeitgeist.

Yes, all politics is local—especially in Bavaria. But, like countries around the world, regional politics is increasingly nationalized. It is not just that every regional election becomes a test for or referendum on the national government. Certainly, like elsewhere in the country, a kind of Merkel fatigue has set in after thirteen years of her leadership. National and even international issues have intruded into regional campaigns. The European-wide migration crisis is of top concern to many voters, even if the numbers have started to subside and integration efforts are largely successful (especially in Bavaria). On-going effects from the Euro crisis, Brexit, and tensions with Russia and now the Trump administration in the U.S. are all affecting voters’ concerns, or at least their mood. Indeed, there is a pervasive sense of anomie—exacerbated by the nefarious effects of social media. People are frustrated (Wutbürger) and want change diffusely, but have no concrete idea about what specifically should be changed or disrupted. Presumably, voters do not want the kind of disruption that would negatively affect the strong economy. But, they most certainly wanted to send a message to the CSU and, indirectly, to the national coalition.

The advent of real multi-party competition and coalition governance is a result to celebrate.

What does this all mean? Was this result an electoral earthquake or merely a tremor? I’d call it a tremor—that is, not much of a shake-up. The outcome will likely not lead to the demise of the national government, even if Seehofer is pushed out. None of the governing parties want to risk early elections at this point. And for Bavaria? I think the advent of real multi-party competition and coalition governance is a result to celebrate. Bavaria is now a little less distinctive thanks to this new diverse political reality and more like the rest of the country and continent. This change aside, Bavarians can always fall back on the free state’s distinctive Heimat, although even that can and will evolve.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.