By Farid Hafez
– Farid Hafez is a political scientist and Senior Research Scholar at The Bridge Initiative, Georgetown University and Senior Scholar at the Department of Political Science at Salzburg University.
SALZBURG – On Oct. 14 this year, the Free State of Bavaria, the largest German state by land area, will hold elections. With its 12.9 million inhabitants, making it Germany's second most populous state, and the third largest city in Germany, its political relevance should not be underestimated. At the same time, Bavaria has never been fully representative of the rest of the very heterogeneous Federal Republic of Germany. Even the conservative Christian Democrats, while being organized under the umbrella of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in 15 states, have their own independent political party in the state of Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU). It is considered to be a more conservative part of the federal government, with its counterpart, the CDU, forming a common faction in the National Parliament. In Bavaria, with only one exception from 1954 to 1958, the CSU has been governing the state since 1946, forming a majority on its own most of the time.
Also, in the last elections, the CSU won a big victory over the rest of the parties with 47.7 percent, leaving the largest opposition party, the Social Democrats far behind at 20.6 percent. But it now seems that the game is changing. In 2013, no right-wing populist party would challenge the nominally center-right party that governs a Catholic-majority state and that also mobilized the more right-wing leaning electorate. But the challenge seems big with the Alternative for Germany (AfD), established in 2013, having celebrated its victory in the national elections in 2017, garnering 12.6 percent of the votes, and gaining representation in nearly all German states, except Bavaria and Hessen.
The AfD follows its sister parties from the Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom, whose members include, for example, the National Rally (formerly the National Front), the Austrian Freedom Party, the Belgian Vlaams Belang, and the Italian Lega (formerly Lega Nord). Although anti-Muslim racism is already a central trait of these parties, the AfD introduced a much cruder and aggressive form of Islamophobia, compared to the other political parties in Germany. With slogans such as “Our country: Our values. Burkas? We love Burkinis!” that reflect the sexist and racist notion of national identity or “Preserve German values: Islam is not part of Germany!” it has made Islamophobia central to its political campaigning.
For the upcoming elections in Bavaria, the AfD has come up with a new set of Islamophobic slogans, such as “Protect Women’s Rights: Schools free of Headscarves”, which invites attacks on Muslim women and pupils who wear the hijab. Another slogan reveals the deeply racist attitude that is especially evocative for its German audience: “German mainstream culture: Islam-Free Schools!”. This slogan was inspired by the Nazi term Judenfrei, which means “free of Jews” and was used to refer to the areas “cleansed” of Jews during the Second World War.
During the national elections last year, most of the electoral support for the AfD (more than three million voters) came from people who had previously avoided going to the polls, followed by former voters of the Christian parties, the CDU and CSU (2.5 million people), 1.7 million people from the Social Democrats, and a half million from the more leftist party The Left.
This is also reflected in the state of Bavaria. According to most polls, the AfD will receive around 13 percent of the vote, while the CSU stands to lose more than 10 percent and the Social Democrats around 8 percent. According to these polls, the absolute majority for the CSU will most likely be gone. Also, the second strongest party according to the polls are the Greens with a slight margin of less than two percent compared to the AfD. Although the CSU will be forced into a coalition, it will be quite flexible in terms of its choice of partners, given its still remaining electoral advantage.
But there are other trends we can observe on behalf of the CSU, which is following a similar method to other European countries, where center-right parties are starting to co-opt the agenda of the far-right in order not to lose its voters to them. Horst Seehofer, who represents the CSU on a federal level as the interior minister, positions himself as a co-supporter of the far-right agenda of a Europe of frontiers, standing next to the far-right interior ministers of Austria and Italy. Just recently Germany experienced a resurgence of organized right-wing groups in the city of Chemnitz. These groups rallied on the streets to protest the murder of a German national by two Middle Eastern men who were allegedly recent immigrants. They not only gave the Hitler salute and shouted hateful slogans; reportedly, even people “not looking German” were hounded through the streets. Following this, the minister of interior, Horst Seehofer, argued that “the migration question is the mother of all political problems in this country”.
Before that, his fellow party member and a minister of the state of Bavaria, Markus Söder, ordered by an Act that all government buildings display a Christian cross. This was even imitated by Matteo Salvini, the right-wing minister of interior from the Italian right-wing Lega.
The CSU has been continuously striking a combative tone regarding issues such as migration and Islam. These initiatives have been taken in the hope that they will slow down the progress of the AfD. But as the examples of so many Western European states reveal, they ignore that voters ultimately speak to the organ grinder, and not to the monkey. No matter how far the CSU goes with an Islamophobic campaign, it will not be easy to defeat the AfD. And this is confirmed by the polls that show the AfD in third place in the state of Bavaria with around 13 percent.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.