How to Interpret the Collapse of Bavaria’s Christian Democrats?

If they were wrong to mimic the far right, what does that mean for conservatives elsewhere?

German Christian Social Union party leaders Joachim Herrmann, Horst Seehofer and Markus Söder speak in Munich, March 16, 2013
German Christian Social Union party leaders Joachim Herrmann, Horst Seehofer and Markus Söder speak in Munich, March 16, 2013 (Michael Lucan)

How much of a cautionary tale is the center-right’s collapse in Bavaria?

The Christian Social Union (CSU), which allies with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats nationally, is down from nearly 48 percent support in the last state election to 35-37 percent in recent polls. The far-right Alternative for Germany is up from 4 to 11-13 percent.

Parable

The Economist‘s Jeremy Cliffe argues that non-Germans should take note:

The [CSU] has been everything conservative commentators say the mainstream must be to beat populism: tough on migration, big on identity, loudly anti-cosmopolitan. And its polling has collapsed to historic lows.

I would like this to be true. I want mainstream conservative parties to act as a bulwark against authoritarian-leaning populism, not pander to nativist voters. For decades, the CSU did.

But I’m not sure this is the whole story.

All politics is local

First, don’t forget the local context. The CSU was still polling as high as 42 percent before the summer.

Then Horst Seehofer, the former party leader and national interior minister, manufactured a row with Merkel over immigration in a transparent bid for right-wing voters.

I suspect this opportunism hurt the CSU far more than any perceived softness on immigration or identity politics.

Mixed record

Second, the record of center-right parties in neighboring countries is mixed.

  • Austria’s Sebastian Kurz moved his People’s Party to the right in last year’s election and won. He now governs in a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party.
  • The far-right League for the first time bested the center-right in Italy. It is now in government as well.
  • François Fillon won the center-right primary in France by mimicking Marine Le Pen’s social conservatism, but failed to qualify for the presidential runoff.
  • The Netherlands’ Mark Rutte took Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party head on, rejecting its pessimism and illiberalism. He won.
  • Mariano Rajoy won three elections in a row in Spain without adopting any of the far right’s policies or rhetoric. His successor is doing exactly that and it hasn’t arrested the People’s Party’s decline in the polls.