Elections in Bavaria: The toxic Bavarian electoral campaign threatens the consensus on the memory of Nazi horror | International
“As a German, I am very ashamed,” sighs Katharina, a 43-year-old high school teacher waiting for the commuter train to Munich at the Hallbergmoos station, about 30 kilometers from the Bavarian capital. A few weeks before the elections in this State, the second most populous in the country, Katharina and the other 9.4 million voters called to the polls this Sunday learned that their current vice president and leader of the Free Voters party, Hubert Aiwanger, had been admirer of Nazism in his youth. “The worst embarrassment is that it has been known and nothing has happened. Even more people are going to vote for him than before. "I can't understand it."
What Frank Schneider, 52, an accountant at a small company, doesn't understand is the commotion that has arisen. The scandal has become, with the permission of immigration, a key issue of the campaign. “It's something that happened 40 years ago, kid stuff. The left has mounted a campaign against him,” he says, convinced in front of Munich central station. “He is one of the few politicians who speaks clearly, they are afraid of him and they want him out,” he adds, repeating the line of defense that Aiwanger has deployed in recent weeks.
At the end of August, the influential Munich newspaper Southgerman newspaper published that the leader of the Free Voters distributed and probably wrote an anti-Semitic pamphlet in the mid-1980s, when he was in high school. Its chilling content provoked immediate calls for resignation from prominent public figures in both Munich and Berlin. Aiwanger was slow to give explanations, which were not clear, and refused to leave. The Bavarian president, Markus Söder, leader of the Christian Democrats of the CSU (sister party of the CDU), kept him in his position. Both parties have governed in coalition since 2018, when the poor results of the CSU, once the hegemonic power in Bavaria, forced Söder to find a partner to govern.
The episode has revealed an uncomfortable reality and has opened a debate throughout the country about the state of health of the Culture of remembranceor culture of remembrance, Germany's much-admired zero tolerance for Nazi revisionism. The Jewish community has warned of the danger of a lukewarm response to what happened in Bavaria at a time when the culture of remembrance is being threatened by the extreme right, which calls for abandoning German guilt once and for all. Also politicians of different sensitivities, such as the co-leader of the Greens, Ricarda Lang, warn: “It's not about 17-year-old Hubert Aiwanger, but about how the 52-year-old confronts his past. He presents himself as a victim and takes no responsibility. [...] “This is shaking our basic democratic consensus.” The debate also arises when cracks open in the cordon sanitaire against the extreme right.
For historian Jürgen Zimmerer, the Aiwanger case has done enormous damage to the Culture of remembranceto the consensus of German society on how to openly confront its past. “The German public has praised itself for its critical self-reflection, but this case demonstrates several things: that this self-criticism was not as widespread as we believed in the 1980s and that it was far from voluntary, that a prominent politician can evade its responsibilities in the middle of the 2020s and that his voters celebrate it,” says the professor at the University of Hamburg. And he concludes: “This is a moral catastrophe for our culture of memory.”
The consensus among Germans is not so much that the current generation is responsible for what happened 80 years ago, but in the way of remembering it, notes the writer and journalist Stefan Cornelius. “It is that consensus that is being eroded now,” he says at the headquarters of the Southgerman newspaperwhere he is the head of Policy. The dangerous thing, he adds, is that Aiwanger's party wants to draw a dividing line between what happened then and the present. The Free Voters candidate has assured that he is not anti-Semitic “since adulthood” and has denied being the author of the pamphlet. When asked by foreign correspondents in Munich, to whom he warned that he would not answer anything about his school years, he assured last week that the Bavarian Government promotes the culture of remembrance and that it is “a priority” for his party.
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Far from harming him, Aiwanger's party has benefited from the scandal. The Free Voters, a right-wing populist group that cries out against “the elites,” went from 13% of voting intentions in August to the 15-16% that the polls now give them. The party is fighting for second place with the Greens and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The situation in Bavaria exemplifies what is happening in the rest of the country, the progressive fragmentation of the vote and the growth of right-wing populism. Although it is usually highlighted as a phenomenon in Eastern Germany, where polls predict the AfD's victory next year in three eastern states with more than 30% of the votes - compared to 21% nationally - if the Bavarian results are added Support for the AfD and the Free Voters is also around the same 30%.
The voters of the largest state in Germany elect a new Parliament this Sunday after an unpleasant and angry electoral campaign, with constant attacks on the tripartite of social democrats, greens and liberals headed by Olaf Scholz in Berlin and special cruelty with the Greens, to whom Markus Söder considers them guilty of championing policies “against the people.” The CSU has been governing Bavaria almost uninterruptedly since the end of the Second World War, but with increasingly less solid support. The 37.2% in 2018 was its worst result since 1950. The latest survey by public television ZDF predicts a similar result this Sunday.
Newly minted right-wing populist parties have stirred up the the status quo in this campaign, taking advantage of the situation of uncertainty that Germany is experiencing. The war in Ukraine has had an impact on a country highly dependent on Russian gas, which has had to look for new sources of energy for its industry, while hosting more than a million Ukrainian refugees. Immersed in a complicated transition to renewables, the economy is stagnant and, although unemployment and inflation are kept at bay, the outlook is bleak.
In this breeding ground, AfD leaders claim to be persecuted and report having been threatened or physically attacked. Tino Chrupalla, co-leader of the party, was taken to hospital this week after suddenly feeling unwell before a rally in Ingolstadt, Bavaria. AfD and its related accounts quickly spread on social media that he had been attacked with a sharp object and that some foreign substance had been inoculated into his arm. Neither the police nor the Prosecutor's Office see signs of a crime and the toxicological analysis has not found any anomaly, but the party has continued to insist on the theory of the attack. Although very cautiously, other groups have criticized the attempt to obtain political gain. The Bavarian Interior Minister, Joachim Hermann, of the CSU, has described it as “infamous”.
The other co-leader of the ultra formation, Alice Weidel, was involved in a similar incident a day earlier, also in the middle of the Bavarian campaign. At the last minute, she canceled a rally supposedly for security reasons: the criminal police had recommended that she not appear in public due to an alleged threat of an attack. Two days later, the German weekly The mirror He revealed that he was actually on vacation with his family in Mallorca and the police denied having made that recommendation.
The result of the elections in Bavaria does not hold any surprises: Söder will win and repeat the coalition with the Free Voters. He himself has excluded the Greens as potential partners and collaboration with the AfD is completely ruled out under the German sanitary cordon on the far right. But if the 2018 results worsen, he will be questioned and his chances of leading an eventual Conservative candidacy for chancellor in 2025 will diminish.
Nor is a reversal expected in Hesse, the small federal state in central Germany that is home to the financial metropolis of Frankfurt, where elections are also being held this Sunday. There, the Christian Democrats of the CDU have been governing in coalition with the Greens for a decade and polls indicate that they could repeat the alliance.
The CDU, with around 32% voting intention, is the clear favorite, well ahead of the 17% that the Social Democrats could obtain. The SPD has placed the Interior Minister of Scholz's Executive, Nancy Faeser, as a candidate, in an attempt to increase the popularity of the party with a well-known face throughout the country. The news will not be the winner, but rather who takes second place, disputed between the SPD, the Greens and the AfD, which arrives with 15-16% of voting intention. For the ultra team, finishing second in a western state would be a moral victory.
In total, almost one in four German voters – around 14 million people – go to the polls this Sunday, in a kind of political mid-term exam for the tripartite government of Chancellor Scholz. In December the coalition will turn two years old. If public opinion does not change, it will do so in an atmosphere of discontent, with almost eight out of ten Germans dissatisfied with the Government.
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