A Postcard to American Conservatives from Bavaria

by Shaker Silvia

There was an earthquake last sunday.

You might have missed it.

Not really your fault, since it was an political earthquake and happened in Bavaria.

You might have heard of Bavaria—it's a state within the Federal Republic of Germany, renowned for its beer, the huuuge party around said beer known to insiders as Octoberfest, dirndl, lederhosn, Catholicism...

Bavaria is a lot like Texas. Ruled by fundamental Christians, speaking a dialect no one else in the union understands, half-serious threatening to leave said union, very politically conservative, and very much in love with their traditions around guns and hunting.

Some of that changed on Sunday. That's the earthquake I've been talking about. In the last election for the unicameral leglislature, in 2003, the Christian Social Party (CSU) got 60% of the vote—record even for them. In the fifty years since its foundation, the CSU never, ever had had less than 50% of the vote.

Until last sunday. They tanked. They now stand at 43%.

So what happened? How did it come to this?

Basically, it comes down to stupidity—on their part. Following a political agenda that hurt their constituents. Going back on decisions. Abandoning the Über-Vater Stoiber a year before the election and replacing him with two unremarkable, boring, and incompetent people. Plain insulting the voters during the election campaign. (Sound familiar?)

A few examples:

In early 2008, the CSU (it was the ruling party then and did have the majority for constitutional change at that time) decided to do something for the protection of non-smokers in public spaces. And they didn't implement something half-assed, they decided to go all the way.

No smoking in restaurant, pubs, nightclubs—if it's interiors and public space, no smoking allowed.

That also includes the marquees during fairs—such as the Octoberfest, which is only the biggest of them all. (This being a Catholic country with a thousand-year tradition of beer brewing, there is always a fair on any given Sunday somewhere in the state from early March to early November to celebrate the patron of a curch, a clerical holiday, the anniversary of the hunting club, or the auxiliary fire brigade ...)

Now, the CSU always paint themselves as protecting traditions and folk customs and the little man on the land—if it sounds familiar, that's because it is universal conservative-speak. And the one thing being done in marquees during fairs besides heavy drinking, ingesting huge amounts of fatty food, and singing along to the music is smoking—cigarettes, cigars, pipes. Huuuge part of the revered "Bavarian Customs TM".

So essentially, the CSU had killed off one important part of Bavarian tradition and endangered another: little pubs at the corner. Little pubs that do not have the space for a designated smoker's room and thus lost a lot of their customers thanks to that law. Some pubs even had to close because the law!

The outrage was great, and the CSU repented. Sort of. Seeing as marquees weren't permanent structures they were excempt from the law. Or some such—the excuse they found was really inane. As for the little pubs or restaurants—most became smoker's clubs. You could still smoke in a pub, if it was a closed session, so the pubs became club homes. Others just plain ignored the law. As did the Bavarian government—they opted to not enforce that law.

Overall it was a pretty embarassing episode for the CSU—lost them a lot of their constituents and earned them a lot of ridicule.

Other example of stupid policy decisions: the milk fight. Short version: farmers felt they were being fleeced of their money by the big dairies and went on strike. The CSU didn't really bother to get involved and as a result lost 40% of the vote of the farmers—a profession that had always voted for them (In 2003, around 95% of all farmers voted CSU).

Then there was the de-throning of Über-Vater Edmund Stoiber. Since 1993 he had been head of the Bavarian state and since 1998 chairmain of the CSU. He was the face you associated with the CSU. Renowned for his compelling speeches—heavily compounding on traditional beliefs and images, riddled with äähs and long pauses. In 2002 he ran as candidate for German chancellor against Gerhard Schröder—which incidentally ensured Schröder with another term of office and a new high for the social democratic party SPD. He pressed through changes and projects that blew up in the faces of his successors—Günther Beckstein and Erwin Huber.

Beckstein became Ministerpräsident of Bavaria in Oktober 2007, Huber chairman of the CSU. Those two really put on a show in the one year of their service. Not coordinating press conferences or policy, generally giving the impression of incapability and utter stupidity. Incidentally, neither of them had been prepared for their new office, after Stoiber was de-throned quite suddenly, they came to power as the virgin to the baby. (Bavarian Proverb: Wie die Jungfrau zum Kind; i.e: through no acting on their part and utterly unprepared.)

Beckstein had been minister of the interior and had advocated policy that makes Republicans look tame in comparison. Online search of your computer? Check. Planting of a Trojan that would spy on you? Check. Video surveillance everywhere? Check. Biometric data on your passport/personal ID? Check. Using the German Army for police work on German territory (Something that's been outlawed by the constitution, and for good reason? Check.

In office, he became famous for anouncing that one could still drive after two maß of beer (that's 2 litres, about half a gallon of beer—Bavarian beer which comes at 11 to 16% of alcohol compared to American style lager at 4-6%).

Erwin Huber had been minister of finances and as such a member of the board of the BayernLB, the Bavarian Housebank. The BayernLB suffered heavy losses due to the global financial crisis, to save the bank bailout had to be payed and Huber suffered heavy criticism.

Some projects initiated by Stoiber blew up in their faces, which really wasn't their fault, but nontheless added to the general impression of incompetence. One prestige project, the Transrapid, from Munich Central Station to the airport, Stoibers' pet-project, proved to be to expensive and had to be abandoned. Huber and Beckstein were blamed for not getting the federal government to cough up more money and generally ruining the Über-Vater's parting gift.

Stoiber had pushed through a school reform—basically, school was shortened a year, but the curriculum remained the same. Same content, less time to learn it = stressed out pupils and pissed off parents. Add to that 28 to 32 pupils per class and the CSU government refusing to hire more teachers... Another example of stupid education policy was the introduction of student fees (i.e. "college tuition"). Compared to Amercia, student fees aren't much, 1200€ a year. But the impact has been huge. A lot of students working part-time had to quit, people who started university after learning a profession had to quit. Basically, it has reinforced class segregation in University. In Bavaria, children of educated parents are disproportionally likely to study (i.e. "attend college"); a child from a single-parent household has a one in ten chance to even make it to high-school graduation. Even less study. (Which, incidentally, is reinforced by the school reform—a single parent doesn't have the time to train much with their child.)

The CSU is also pushing for a third runway to Munich airport—good for business but bad for the people living near/under the entry lane. Same with a new motorway that would basically destroy a nature reserve, be a sore sight for the eyes and cost more than the alternative track proposed by locals and environmentalists.

During the election campaign, Beckstein declared that "a real Bavarian votes CSU". In German: ein anständiger Bayer wählt CSU. "Anständig" is a bit tricky to translate. It can mean real as in original; it can also mean honest, fair, proper, decent. If you reverse it, it becomes clearer: If you don't vote CSU, you're not a Bavarian.

Which enraged a lot of people.

During all of this, Beckstein and Huber gave the impression that one didn't know what the other did, often contradicting the other in press conferences, generally not understanding what the fuss was all about and standing helpless in front of crisis.

The CSU party slogan had been "Closer to the people" and 50+x, meaning 50% + x% of the vote. Though they wanted to be a people's party, for years they have catered to the needs of business and their own politcal agendas.

As a Turkisch-Bavarian comedian put it: "Any seemingly dead has more feeling for the people." ("Da hat ja jeder Scheintote mehr Gefühl fürs Volk.")

Sometimes, selfishness, stupidity, greed, and insulting behavior in politicians is indeed punished by the people.

So, Beckstein had to go. As did Huber. And a few people lower down the food chain one didn't even know existed (or what it was they did exactly).

Theoretically, the four other parties elected to the Landtag could form the new Bavarian government. Together they've got enough votes. Personally, I'd like them to try. Just to see the reaction of the CSU.

To be fair, it's not just the CSU that lost during this election, but the SPD as well. People are disenchanted with their policy and looking elsewhere, mostly voting for smaller parties such as FDP, Freie Wähler. But the CSU suffered the heaviest losses and most of those could be tied to their blunders in making policy and during the election campaign.


(For further information check out Der Spiegel and this article in the New York Times.)

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