Europe

Bavarian vote tests how much migration and the far right is changing Europe

Election posters in the city center of Deggendorf, in the Bavarian state of Germany. Source: NYTNS

A Bavarian election would not normally attract so much attention, but Sunday's vote is expected to reflect an increasingly fragmented society.

They don’t know each other, but Josef Mayerhofer, a construction manager, and Harold Fischer, a retired doctor, have at least two things in common.

Both have always voted for Bavaria’s dominant party, the conservative Christian Social Union, a key component of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s fragile coalition government.

And come Sunday, when Bavaria votes again, neither will do so this time.

Josef Mayerhofer, a construction manager who said he had always voted for the conservative Christian Social Union, but not this time.
Josef Mayerhofer, a construction manager who said he had always voted for the conservative Christian Social Union, but not this time.
NYTNS

Where they diverge is which parties will get their votes: one will vote left, and the other far right. The issue driving both? Migration.

At any other moment in Germany, a regional election in Bavaria would be, well, a regional election in Bavaria.

But in the current uncertain political climate, the vote is being closely watched as a referendum on Merkel’s migration policy — and a measure of how much German and European politics are being reshuffled by feelings over migration, by the rise of the far right and by the collapse of the political centre.

In Bavaria, that political centre has been more conservative and dominant than elsewhere in Germany — and has held out longer.

'Big-tent politics are over'

But Bavaria’s conservatives, who have governed here with an absolute majority for all but one term since the 1960s, could see their vote share shrivel to below 35 percent on Sunday.

As once loyal voters scatter, seven parties could soon sit in the Bavarian parliament, which would make it one of the most fragmented in the country.

Two in particular are poised to benefit: the nativist, Euroskeptic Alternative for Germany and the pro-refugee, pro-European Greens.

“The days of big-tent politics are over, even in Bavaria,” said Heinrich Oberreuter, a veteran political analyst and Bavarian conservative himself.

As society has become wealthier, more secular and more individualistic, he said, “people increasingly vote on values, and those values have become polarised.”

Three years after more than 1 million migrants started arriving in Germany, a noisy and at times ugly election campaign in Bavaria has crystallised into perhaps the clearest battle of values yet.

Alternative for Germany, which is on course to enter the Bavarian parliament for the first time, with an expected 10 percent of the vote, has received the most attention. But the biggest winner could be the Greens.

Harold Fischer, center right, a retired doctor, talks with Katrin Ebner-Steiner, center left, a candidate with the Alternative for Germany party, in Deggendorf, in the Bavarian state of Germany.
Harold Fischer, center right, a retired doctor, talks with Katrin Ebner-Steiner, center left, a candidate with the Alternative for Germany party, in Deggendorf.
NYTNS

On course to double their vote share to 18 percent, this onetime single-issue environmental protest party could become the second-strongest political force in Bavaria — and the only viable coalition partner for the diminished conservatives.

Strikingly, the Greens have become the most consistent voice in favor of migration — and as such the clearest challenger of the far right, both in Munich and in Berlin.

Their Bavarian co-leader, the 33-year-old Katharina Schulze, says she wants to tell a positive story about migration and about Europe.

“People are tired of the hate and fear mongering,” she said in a recent interview.

“We are very clearly on the pro-European, pro-liberal democracy side,” Schulze said.

Alternative for Germany, she said, “is our polar opposite,” with all of the other parties “swimming in the middle.”

Terrified of Alternative for Germany, which has steadily gained support since the 2015 migrant crisis, Bavaria’s conservatives responded by veering sharply to the right themselves — before rowing back somewhat when their poll numbers continued to slide.

Early in the campaign, Markus Söder, the Bavarian premier, talked of ending “asylum tourism,” a term frequently used by the far-right party, and ordered that Christian crosses be displayed in every state government building.

Since then, Horst Seehofer, the Christian Social Union’s leader and interior minister in Merkel’s government, has said that Islam “does not belong to Germany” and called migration “the mother of all problems.”

Seehofer, a vocal critic of the chancellor, nearly brought down the country’s governing coalition over the question of reinstating border controls with Austria.

It is that sort of thing that persuaded Mayerhofer, after 32 years of supporting the conservatives, to vote Green on Sunday.

Election posters in the city center of Deggendorf, in the Bavarian state of Germany.
Josef Mayerhofer drives his tractor home in the village of Niedergottesau.
NYTNS

Mayerhofer, who lives in a Catholic village in rural Bavaria, speaks in Bavarian dialect and streams Bavarian radio when he travels, joined the conservatives’ youth organisation more than three decades ago, when he was 14.

Sometimes he helped count ballots after elections. “It was completely normal to get more than 70 percent,” Mayerhofer recalled.

Everyone voted conservative, and not, he added, just because the village priest would gently encourage residents during Mass to make “the Christian choice.”

“The party was always a broad church, but it worked in the interest of the many and it did a good job,” he said.

But these days, when Mayerhofer, 47, hears senior conservatives warn of another wave of migration, or the risk of migrant crime, he says he becomes “emotional.”

Four Syrian families live in his village and “are perfectly well integrated,” he says. Two of them are his immediate neighbours. “There is nothing Christian in vilifying them,” he said.

Or take the police controls the Bavarian conservatives have reinstated at the nearby border with Austria, just over a mile from Mayerhofer’s house.

"We live at the border, there is no problem,” he said. “It’s pure populism."

Disappointment over conservatives lack of action

About 60 miles northeast, in another Bavarian hilltop village near the border, Fischer is equally dismissive of conservative election maneuvering — but for different reasons.

A lifelong conservative like Mayerhofer, he, too, says he will abandon the Christian Social Union because of the recent influx of migrants — but in his case, Alternative for Germany will get his vote.

“They are the only ones that want to actually guard the border,” Fischer, 63, said, and if need be, “build a fence.”

When migrants started arriving in 2015, and kept coming in 2016, Fischer thought the conservatives might shut the border, do something, “fix this,” as he put it.

Every morning, when he drove down from the mountain and into the nearby town of Deggendorf, he passed a home for asylum-seekers.

“I would see women with face veils crossing the street with no regard for traffic,” he said. He complained that the city was changing and that there were “more and more of them coming.”

Fischer said the Bavarian conservatives, for all their hawkish noises, were in government with Merkel.

“This is their responsibility, too,” he said.

On several afternoons this week, Fischer helped at an Alternative for Germany stall on the market square in Deggendorf, where the party got nearly 20 percent of the vote in last year’s national election, the highest share in western Germany.

“Everyone who stops at the stall asks about migration,” he said. “It’s the issue people care most about.”

Alternative for Germany’s 100-page program states that, “Islam does not belong to Bavaria,” and warns that the religion’s spread endangers “the internal peace, our legal and value systems, as well as our cultural identity.” The party calls for swift deportations of people whose asylum applications are rejected, and a ban on dual citizenship.

The Greens take the opposite view, arguing that “people who come to us are part of society,” seeing “diversity as an enrichment” and calling for an end to labor restrictions for asylum-seekers.

Mayerhofer says he hopes his old party and his new one will form a coalition, like the one in the neighboring state of Baden-Württemberg.

Harold Fischer, left, a retired doctor, talks with Katrin Ebner-Steiner, center, a candidate with the Alternative for Germany party, in Deggendorf, in the Bavarian state of Germany.
Harold Fischer, left, a retired doctor, talks with Katrin Ebner-Steiner, center, a candidate with the Alternative for Germany party.
NYTNS

Fischer says he wishes the conservatives would team up with Alternative for Germany, mirroring a coalition in Austria.

Both men are somewhat nostalgic for the days when the conservatives still had their confidence, when Bavaria and its future seemed in good hands, when politics was not quite so raw.

Mayerhofer says his choice to vote Green is not always popular in the countryside, where some still associate the party with veganism, transgender rights and other “urban follies.”

Fischer says he can no longer talk politics with some family members without falling out.

“Migration,” he said, “has split the country, and it has split Bavaria.”

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