An English footballer once described the rules of his sport as follows: twenty two men kick a ball around for 90 minutes and in the end the Germans win. Tell this to a Bavarian though and he’d shake his head and say: “Eigentlich gewinnt immer der Bayern!”
And he wouldn’t be wrong. Bayern Munich winning the Bundesliga is just about as certain as death and taxes. Meanwhile when Germany won the World Cup in 2014, six of the starting eleven were Bayern players.
As in football, so in politics: In Bavaria a handful of parties campaign in state elections every five years - and when the votes are counted the Christian Social Union (CSU) always win.
Excluding a three-year blip in the 1950s, the conservative party has dominated Bavarian politics to an extent unparalleled in any other corner of Germany. Crushing victories are the norm: CSU leaders have lost their jobs for failing to win 50 percent of the vote.
The CSU are a peculiarity, they only exist in Bavaria and form a conservative alliance with the Christian Democrats (CDU) in the Bundestag.
Like a nationalist party in provinces of Spain or the United Kingdom, their main electoral strategy is playing to local pride. According to the CSU narrative, the best beer, cars, footballers and mountains all have one thing in common - they’re found in Bavaria.
The only difference to a nationalist party is that the CSU has no intention of seceding from the rest of the country. And a mighty act of self-sacrifice that is too given the serial mismanagement of the Berlin political class!
The CSU’s beer tent politics is out of time with the rest of the country, where sobriety is prized above all else. The most maddening thing for everyone else though is that the Bavarian bragging isn’t just braggadocio. The southern state pays the most into a contribution system meant to support poorer Bundesländer. It has the strongest economy, the best education system, and, yes, it clearly has the best mountains, too.
That all means that Bavarians can be more than a little forgiving of the CSU’s foibles.
The man who dominated Bavarian politics through the latter half of the 20th century, Franz Joseph Strauß, is best known north of the Weißwurstäquator for corruption, embezzlement and ordering the arrest of awkward journalists. But in Bavaria the man who led the CSU from the early 1960s until his death in 1988 is a latter day saint who has an international airport named after him.
Current state premier Markus Söder would be flattered by any comparisons to Strauß. He had a poster with his hero’s face on it above his bed when he was a teenager and has sought to follow in his footsteps ever since. With his mixture of Alphatier charisma, Berlin-bashing rhetoric, and adeptness at inner-party power games, Söder is a very typical Bavarian leader.
He ousted his predecessor Horst Seehofer at the end of 2017 after successfully portraying him as too weak to stand up to Angela Merkel over her liberal refugee policies.
Going into the Bavarian election in 2018, he decided to run as the protector of German values. Following Strauß’ maxim of never leaving room for a party to the right of the CSU, he borrowed from AfD rhetoric to try to squash their vote. But modern day Bavaria is perhaps a different place to the one of the Strauß era. The xenophobic undertone to his campaigning seemed to turn off a public who’d volunteered en masse during the refugee arrivals.
When the results came in on October 14th 2018, the CSU won just 37 percent - their worst result since 1950. The Green party on the other hand more than tripled their vote share to win 18 percent.
Söder had to rethink his strategy. He (literally) started hugging trees and threw his weight behind a campaign to save the Bavarian bee.
Then, when the coronavirus reached Germany, he saw the chance to act both as mighty Landesvater and as a caring, modern leader. Proclaiming himself to be the head of Team Vorsicht, he chided other state leaders if they proposed relaxing lockdown rules. He declared states of emergency and issued flurries of edicts aimed at bringing the spread of the virus back under control.
For a long time, Söder’s all-action approach struck a chord with a worried public. By the spring of last year, his popularity ratings had hit such heights that he even tried to run for Chancellor for the CSU/CDU, a move that failed over the resistance of the CDU hierarchy. The CSU would bitterly respond that the CDU had failed to choose “the people’s candidate.”
In truth, Söder’s popularity had probably already passed its high-water mark by that stage. While the CSU were regularly polling at around 50 percent in 2020 and Söder was second only to Merkel in the popularity stakes, those scores have eroded ever since.
By December it was clear that the polish had come off the crown of the man whom detractors call König Markus von Bayern. Latest polling shows the CSU down at 32 percent - what would represent a catastrophic result by their standards. Meanwhile half of Bavarians now say they are unhappy with the job their leader is doing.
Where did it go wrong?
An obvious stain is the corruption allegations that engulfed the party last year, when police opened investigations against two senior CSU politicians suspected of taking huge kickbacks from companies who sold face masks to the state.
There is also a perception that Söder talks a better game than he plays. Data released by the Robert Koch Institute shows that Bavaria is actually one of the worst performing states when it comes to preventing serious disease with the coronavirus. It’s mortality figures of 152 deaths per 100,000 people are the worst in any of the states of former west Germany.
Perhaps most damaging of all though has been the accusation that Söder manipulated coronavirus statistics in order to pressure people into getting vaccinated.
On November 18th, he claimed on Twitter that the incidence of infection was ten times higher among the unvaccinated than among the vaccinated. While there were 110 cases for every 100,000 vaccinated Bavarians, there were 1,469 such cases among the unvaccinated, he claimed.
He published the statistics just days after backtracking on a promise not to prohibit unvaccinated people from entering restaurants and bars. The U-turn was forced on him due to the fact that Bavaria was facing a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”, he stated.
The huge difference in the level of infection in Bavaria was jarring though, given that scientists were already cautioning that the vaccines were only of limited use in stopping transmission.
Sure enough, research by Die Welt newspaper subsequently showed that the Bavarian authorities had been fiddling their figures: if they didn’t know someone’s vaccine status they simply counted them as unvaccinated. They eventually had to admit that was the case in 70 percent of all their data, meaning Söder’s figures were likely to be wildly misleading.
The CSU response was to accuse Die Welt newspaper of providing fuel to anti-vaxxers. Söder meanwhile denied all knowledge of the manipulation, saying that responsibility for the statistics lay solely in the hands of his health ministry, where a senior official was removed from his post. Case closed.
The latest polling figures suggest the case is far from closed in the eyes of the Bavarian public. Even they have their limits. Not that this threatens the CSU’s chances of winning the next Bavarian election. Just like in football, the result is guaranteed.
But Söder, so dominant 12 months ago, suddenly looks vulnerable should a younger male emerge from the CSU pack who is prepared to challenge the Alphatier.
What else do you need to know?
The German government decided on Friday to loosen its quarantine rules as the omicron variant causes a new surge in coronavirus cases. Under the new Covid restrictions, people with positive tests will have to quarantine for ten days instead of 14; they can end the isolation after seven days with a negative test. People who have been boostered and have been in contact with an infected person will not have to go into quarantine. Also agreed: to dine in restaurants, one will now have to be vaccinated or recovered and have a negative test - a rule known as 2G-plus.
Last week the Federal Statistics Agency released its inflation figures for December and the entire year of 2021. For December, prices rose by 5.3 percent in comparison with a year earlier. The figure for the whole of last year was a 3.1 percent increase in prices. Initially, economists attributed the price rises to a one-off effect caused by a drop in VAT during 2020. More recently there has been an acceptance that the causes are deeper rooted.
What members have been reading
With the US and Russia meeting in Geneva this week to try and resolve tensions on the Ukrainian border, the world is waiting on tenterhooks to see whether a diplomatic solution before war breaks out in eastern Europe. Germany is also keen to play a role as broker in the conflict - Olaf Scholz’ team are trying to set up a meeting with Vladimir Putin this month. But the new government is divided on how to approach the Kremlin. I dissected the conflicts in the coalition. READ HERE
A study released last week laid bare the different pay conditions that east and west Germans labour under. I took these numbers as the starting point for an essay on how east Germans are treated in public narratives. My conclusion: unfair cliches in both the west and the east persist three decades after reunification. READ HERE
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