Many people thought Bavaria’s election would be a backlash against the hundreds of thousands of migrants Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed into Germany three years ago. It turned out to be a backlash against Ms. Merkel herself.
Voters on both the left and the right are saying it is time for her and her government to go.
The vote in one of Germany’s biggest and richest states may offer the first glimpse of a post-Merkel Germany: A vibrant opposition being rewarded for, well, providing vibrant opposition. Populists galvanizing voters on the fringes, but less than expected. And the resounding collapse of the two parties associated with the chancellor’s 13-year reign.
Ms. Merkel may not have been breathing a sigh of relief, but some of those worried about the health of German democracy were.
“We have a governing problem, we don’t have a democracy problem,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, a former adviser to the German president and director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund. “All the parties in government were punished, all the others gained and turnout was up.”
The main takeaway from Bavaria, he said: “We have a vibrant democracy that is in the process of rebooting itself.”
Ms. Merkel’s leadership and legacy have become inextricably linked to her decision not to close Germany’s borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants in 2015. That decision marked the zenith of her status as a protector of humanitarian values and of Germany’s reputation as an open and tolerant nation. But it also gave rise to a resurgent far right.
Hours after the ballots in Bavaria were counted, Ms. Merkel acknowledged as much.
“Something important is missing, and that something is trust,” she said in Berlin on Monday. “My lesson from yesterday is that I, as the chancellor, must do more to ensure there is more trust.”
The voters’ verdict was damning.
Bavaria’s conservatives did not just lose the absolute majority they had held for all but one term since 1962. They saw their share of the vote shrivel to 37 percent. The Social Democrats collapsed into the single digits, their vote halved.
Less than a year into her fourth term, the government of the woman who was celebrated as Europe’s most powerful leader and the champion of the Continent’s liberal order, simply looks tired.
“The sheer exhaustion exuded by Merkel and the grand coalition shows there is no energy left there,” said Martin Florack, a professor of political science at the Duisburg-Essen University. “People have the urge to see change.”
Change is what both the Alternative for Germany and the Greens in Bavaria promised, and both gained support in the vote.
But the Greens, running on a platform of open borders, liberal social values and the fight against climate change, gained more. The once-fringe environmental party has now emerged as one of the strongest forces in German politics.
It doubled its vote in Bavaria, to nearly 17.5 percent in an election in which turnout surged to over 70 percent.
“You’re seeing an affluent, beautiful stretch of Germany diversifying, normalizing after nearly 60 years of the closest thing to a single party state in a democracy,” said Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund.
He was to quick to note, however, that Bavaria remains staunchly conservative and that populism remains a powerful force. “The far right is still setting the agenda,” he said. “And the Greens are not big enough to actually govern.”
Still, a sense of a new political energy has been visible in Bavaria and other parts of Germany.
Leading up to the election, several demonstrations against racism, the far right and restrictive police laws have attracted tens of thousands of people since May on the streets of Munich. Just 10 days before the election, up to 40,000 people flooded the heart of the Bavarian city in a final march of what organizers called a “summer of resistance.”
In Berlin, last Saturday, some 240,000 people marched for democracy, pluralism and tolerance — 10 times as many as had attended the weekly anti-immigrant marches in Dresden at the height of their popularity in 2015.
“Our demonstration is a sign of hope and of the future,” said Jutta Weduwen, one of the organizers.
The question of how to win back disaffected voters from the far right has preoccupied Ms. Merkel’s conservative party ever since the latest wave of migrants began arriving in 2015, and the AfD started eating into its voter base. Some fear that by moving the party too far to the center, the chancellor has energized the far right.
Now that Bavaria’s conservatives have tried — and failed — to lure voters back by echoing the far right’s anti-immigrant slogans, some conservatives are urging a more positive message.
“With this result, we have seen that a shift to the right is false — plain and simple,” said Armin Laschet, one of Ms. Merkel’s deputies in the Christian Democratic party and the governor of the industrial state of North Rhine-Westphalia. “We need to focus on liberal voters, Christian voters, and stop talking about the threat from the right.”
“The Greens are the only German party in which the pro-European, refugee-friendly, liberal-democratic attitude is undisputed,” said Arne Jungjohann, a political scientist at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which is affiliated with the party. “In times of rising populism and growing Nazi violence, other parties have been hesitant to take a clear stand.”
Bavaria’s conservatives may be a regional sister party of the chancellor’s conservatives, but they are rebellious, and had done much to distance themselves from Ms. Merkel in recent months. They publicly criticized her migration policy and twice nearly brought down the coalition. During their final election rally, they invited the chancellor of Austria, who is in coalition with the far right, instead of her.
The election has weakened Ms. Merkel politically. The collapse of support for her two coalition partners makes it more likely that one or both of them will explode the government.
And Ms. Merkel’s own conservatives are bracing for a difficult outcome in another regional ballot in two weeks time, in Hesse. Many fear the chancellor would not survive similar losses there when voters go to the polls on Oct. 28. The Christian Democrats control the state, but recent weeks have shown them slipping in the polls by as much as 10 percentage points.
In the end, the greatest danger for Ms. Merkel might come from within her own party rather than from voters. She is up for re-election as party leader in December and has made clear that the post goes hand in hand with being chancellor.
Even Ms. Merkel’s closest allies are now publicly acknowledging that she may not serve out her fourth term.
“She is no longer so undisputed as she has been over three legislative periods,” Wolfgang Schäuble, a senior member of her party and president of Parliament, said ahead of the vote in Bavaria. The outcomes of the two regional elections “could lead to discussions” and “bring significant changes,” Mr. Schäuble said.
Disappointment with the current government from within the chancellor’s own ranks was evident last month, when rebellious members of the conservative parliamentary caucus voted in a new speaker over one of Ms. Merkel’s most loyal and longest-serving aides.
“Angela Merkel has governed for an extraordinarily long time and with much success,” Mr. Schäuble recently told an Italian newspaper. “But it’s part of human nature that everything must end.”