Europe's Polarized Politics Looks Set to Claim Its Next Victim

(Bloomberg) -- Campaigning on a cobbled square in medieval downtown Nuremberg, Green lawmaker Verena Osgyan is counting on voters to deliver a slap to Angela Merkel’s sister party.

What would have seemed outlandish a few years ago is now a likely prospect for Bavaria’s ruling Christian Social Union, a party identified with the region’s rise to economic power since World War II. After clashing with the chancellor over migration and competing for votes with the nationalist Alternative for Germany, or AfD, polls indicate the CSU will lose its absolute majority in a state election on Sunday.

Europe's Polarized Politics Looks Set to Claim Its Next Victim

“We have rising right-wing populism in Germany, but it’s really clear that the majority of people don’t think that way,” said Osgyan, 46, who was handing out Green flyers and pitching her party’s stance on rights for women and migrants.

While compounded by political infighting and gaffes, the CSU’s troubles are more evidence of eroding support for Europe’s political establishment as voters abandon the traditional center ground in favor of the margins. In Germany, the right-wing AfD has been a core beneficiary, but so are the Greens, which have built their appeal on an internationalist, pro-immigration stance.

Merkel Impact

German media will publish first projections when polls close at 6 p.m. local time Sunday. What the election outcome will mean for Merkel is hard to predict. A bad result for the CSU -- which is one of three parties in the federal government -- could see its leaders retreat to their Bavarian fastness to regroup and cease to be such a thorn in the chancellor’s side.

Humiliation at the ballot box could just as easily make Merkel’s life more difficult, with a socially conservative partner that blames her for Germany’s refugee influx and a host of policies it views as betraying her center-right bloc’s values.

Europe's Polarized Politics Looks Set to Claim Its Next Victim

“The CSU is clearly getting punished for their migration stance,” said Famke Krumbmueller, a partner at political-risk consultancy OpenCitiz. “If the CSU loses, then Merkel has an easy way of detaching herself from that result.”

CSU head Horst Seehofer, who has stoked conflict over migration in his national role as Merkel’s interior minister, may have to fall on his sword, but even even if he stays, “it’ll be much quieter” for Merkel, Krumbmueller said.

Space Oddity

Once untouchable in the land of beer, lederhosen and BMW cars, the CSU -- which runs only in Bavaria -- is on course to drop some 15 percentage points from its tally in the last election five years ago. That’s despite high incomes and Germany’s lowest regional jobless rate: just 2.8 percent in September.

Europe's Polarized Politics Looks Set to Claim Its Next Victim

In the CSU’s campaign, old favorites such as pledging to place Christian crosses in state offices fell flat. State premier Markus Soeder drew ridicule on social media with a “mission” to turn Bavaria into Europe’s top space technology hub, while a predecessor blamed part of the party’s slump on less conservative Germans moving to Bavaria from other parts of the country.

With polls suggesting no obvious coalition ally for a diminished CSU, post-election Bavaria may face months of political stalemate similar to the one that held up Merkel’s fourth term after last year’s national election. What seems certain is that established parties will band together to keep the AfD out of government.

Migration Gateway

While migration is reshaping politics across Europe, Bavaria’s role as the main gateway for more than 1 million refugees who arrived in Germany since 2015 made it particularly vulnerable.

Alternative for Germany has gone from nowhere in the 2013 election to as much as 14 percent in recent polls, putting the party on track for its first seats in the state legislature. Running second behind the CSU is the Green party, which polled 19 percent in an FG Wahlen survey published Thursday, more than double its support last time around.

It’s all coming as a bit of shock to CSU diehards.

“I can’t understand it,” said Ralf Regnat, 64, head of a local CSU chapter, as he manned a campaign table in Nuremberg. “We’re the best federal state in every respect, of all of Germany’s 16 states. We’ve got the least unemployment. The best business numbers.”

Merkel tried to form a national government with the Greens after the 2017 election, but failed after her other prospective partner, the Free Democrats, pulled the plug. Members of her cabinet, including Economy Minister Peter Altmaier, are known to favor alliances with the Greens, who already rule with the CDU in four German states.

Taken Seriously

While Merkel avoided campaigning in Bavaria, Green leaders seized the opportunity.

Europe's Polarized Politics Looks Set to Claim Its Next Victim

Last week found national co-head Robert Habeck stumping in the outside courtyard of an artsy bar to promote Katharina Schulze, 33, the top Green woman candidate in Bavaria, as a few hundred supporters sipped wine, beer and water.

The pair drew applause as they talked up mainstream issues, from women’s rights and affordable housing to public transit and high-speed Internet.

“There were a lot of people here tonight who don’t typically come to Green Party events,” said local Green legislative candidate Barbara Fuchs. “People take us seriously now. They understand that the topics we’ve been talking about for a long, long time are real.”

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