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Germany’s shifting political landscape put to the test in key state votes

<i>Martin Schutt/dpa/picture alliance/Getty Images</i><br/>German flags are carried at an AfD election campaign event.
Martin Schutt/dpa/picture alliance/Getty Images
German flags are carried at an AfD election campaign event.

By Sophie Tanno and Nadine Schmidt, CNN

(CNN) — The German states of Bavaria and Hesse vote in regional elections on Sunday, in what is widely being seen as a test-case for Germany’s shifting political landscape.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is set to make gains in both states, although most other major parties have ruled out collaboration with it.

While Sunday’s elections are not expected to yield drastic outcomes, they will indicate the extent of the AfD’s grip on the regions.

They could also send a clear message to the federal government as dissatisfaction mounts over key issues including inflation, immigration and climate policy.

One major question is whether a lack of support for Scholz’s ruling traffic light coalition – an allusion to the colors of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Greens it is comprised of – in Bavaria and Hesse will boost support for conservative opposition, or whether the far-right will instead mop up votes from a disenfranchised electorate.

In Hesse – home to Frankfurt, Germany’s financial hub – dissatisfaction with Germany’s federal government threatens to deliver a blow to Scholz’s coalition. The regional election will not directly affect federal politics, although a lack of support for Scholz’s SPD-led government in Hesse could be a worrying signal ahead of the country’s next federal election.

Bavaria, Germany’s largest state and a conservative Catholic region known for its Oktoberfest beer halls, bratwurst and lederhosen, has been facing the same issues seen throughout the country: migration, rising energy costs, and an ailing economy.

Meanwhile, Bavaria’s economy minister has recently been embroiled in an antisemitism scandal that sent shockwaves through Germany and prompted calls for his resignation.

Since 1949, Bavaria has been dominated by one party – the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), sister party to the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

The Minister-President of Bavaria, Markus Söder, is hoping to hold onto his current governing coalition of the CSU and the right-wing Free Voters (FW) in Sunday’s crunch election.

The current landscape has the potential to change, however, with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) projected to reach a new record share of the vote.

It comes at a time when the CDU has found itself at a crossroads after being in power for much of Germany’s post-war era. Known as the country’s traditional conservatives, the party under former Chancellor Angela Merkel adopted a welcoming stance towards refugees and came to see immigration as an integral part of Germany’s future.

However, the party’s more liberal policies have drawn criticism from some who accuse the party of no longer representing Germany’s middle ground, with some voters giving that as their reason for pivoting away from the party towards the AfD.

The AfD ran in Bavaria for the first time in the last state elections in 2018, when it came in fourth with 10% of the vote. The result was widely viewed as a humiliation for the CSU, which lost its absolute majority, and allowed the AfD to muscle into Bavaria’s state government.

Prior to 2018, the CSU had only fallen short of an absolute majority in Bavaria’s state assembly once since 1954, when it missed the mark by just two seats in 2008. In previous years,the party’s vote share has typically been close to 50% in Bavaria.

Now, the AfD is on track to eclipse its success in 2018, with recent polls putting the party at around 15% of the vote.

The AfD has already made advances in Germany’s former eastern communist states, with a poll conducted by INSA (Institute for New Social Answers) in September finding that it had eclipsed the CDU in the eastern state of Saxony for the first time.

Backlash against the far-right party has been palpable in the days leading up to the election, however, with tens of thousands taking to the streets of Bavarian capital Munich on Wednesday to protest against it.

Charlotte Knoblauch, a Holocaust survivor and former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told the crowds of demonstrators; “It must be clear to everyone: What starts to slide today can bury our democracy under itself tomorrow.”

Talking to CNN ahead of Sunday’s vote, Katrin-Ebner Steiner, AfD’s co-leader in Bavaria, spoke with disdain about Germany’s other parties and called for the country to be “turned upside down in key policy areas.”

Steiner’s anti-migrant stance was clear as she accused her rivals of “putting the country in an extremely difficult position” by allowing “uncontrolled mass migration,” which she described as an “invasion.”

She continued: “The borders are open and unprotected, the number of illegal border crossings is at a record high… In Bavaria, we want not only an upper limit, but also regulated and legally compliant repatriation.”

Steiner lashed out at the right-wing FW, slamming it for “supporting all the wrong decisions of the CSU in the last five years.” She accused the rival party and its leader, Hubert Aiwanger, of copying the AfD’s programs and election speeches.

The FW has also made gains in the polls in the lead-up to Sunday’s election – despite being embroiled in an antisemitism scandal – with recent data putting the party at around 16% of the vote, second only to the CSU at 36.5%.

Antisemitism row

Bavaria’s FW, a relatively new party established in 1998, has been in coalition with the CSU since the last state election in 2018, with the two sharing socially conservative and economically liberal values.

The party, which started out as a grassroots movement, has grown in popularity to become a major player on Bavaria’s political scene. However, it remains little-known outside of the southern state.

The party found itself at the center of an antisemitism row in the lead-up to Sunday’s election. Leader Hubert Aiwanger, who also serves as Bavaria’s economy minister, was accused of far-right sympathies following a report first published in Germany’s Süddeutesche Zeitung newspaper that alleged he had distributed leaflets mocking victims of the Holocaust in his school days. Aiwanger insists it has failed to diminish support for his party.

Speaking to CNN, Aiwanger said: “The Süddeutsche Zeitung wanted to damage me in my election campaign – but probably achieved the opposite.

“Many people say it is indecent what they have tried to do here, bringing up stories from childhood and youth to damage a sitting minister and therefore many say they now vote for me all the more.”

Aiwanger claimed that if it wasn’t for his party, there would already be a strong AfD in Bavaria’s state government, as FW is able to “catch” voters who feel disenchanted with the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the CSU or the FDP.

“We are not a protest party; we prevent citizens from becoming protest voters because we recognize and solve their problems on the ground,” he claimed.

Bavarian Premier Söder chose not to dismiss Aiwanger following the allegations, amid calls from across Germany’s political spectrum for the economy minister’s resignation.

Explaining Söder’s decision, Thomas Kreuzer, chairman of the CSU group in the Bavarian parliament, told CNN: “During the time Aiwanger has worked with us politically, we have never been able to establish that he has pursued extremist or antisemitic tendencies.

“Under such conditions, it would be completely disproportionate to dismiss a minister for whom many things cannot be proven and are therefore not certain, and in any case happened 35 years ago, when Aiwanger was still a school student.”

That position was slammed by members of Chancellor Scholz’s ruling SPD coalition, including Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, who accused the Bavarian leader of damaging Germany’s reputation abroad.

Battling against their right-wing rivals in Bavaria are the environmental Greens. Center-left parties are typically less popular in the conservative state. This year, however, the Greens are polling on a similar level to the FW and AfD at 15%.

Even if successful in the election, the Greens would struggle to find other parties that are willing to work with them. Kreuzer ruled out a coalition with the Greens ahead of Sunday’s vote.

“We have very little in common with the Greens on a political level, so a coalition would not be promising to make policies successful,” Kreuzer told CNN.

“And by the way, we don’t want a traffic light government. We want to be independent of the traffic light in Bavaria.”

Elections in Hesse will be watched with interest by the rest of the country, particularly because Interior Minister Faeser is running for governor on behalf of the SPD despite simultaneously serving as the country’s top security official.

Faeser explained her decision to German newspaper Der Spiegel earlier this year, saying: “I’m the first woman to head the Interior Ministry, and I would like to be the first female governor of Hesse.”

Her prospects for achieving this remain unclear. Hesse, which was formerly a stronghold for the SPD, is currently governed by the CDU in coalition with the Greens.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Inke Kappeler contributed reporting.

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