Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Politically, that is.
There has been some unprecedented rearranging of the furniture on Germany’s political scene this week—one in which cities have been in the forefront. After a regional election Sunday, a new metro region now holds the country’s record for the highest levels of support for the Green Party (aka Alliance 90) the eco-focused, center-left party that has been a significant force (and sometime minority partner in coalition governments) since 1980. And it isn’t Berlin’s alternative-leaning Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg borough, which has been governed by the Green Party since 2006. It’s the southern city of Munich.
All of it, in fact. Across the 1.45 million-strong Bavarian capital, an unprecedented 42.5 percent of votes went to the Greens. That’s a very high proportion in Germany’s multiparty system, and a big score for the Greens: They outpolled the Merkel-affiliated CSU by more than two and a half times. It’s also a shock. Starchy and relatively serene Munich is a well-liked city in Germany; its wealth, sub-Alpine setting and old-looking (but often reconstructed) buildings generally earn it higher popularity ratings than gruff, sprawling Berlin. But Munich has a rather conservative, even slightly doughy reputation (though it’s seen as more progressive than its rural hinterland). In short, it’s an unlikely stage for political upheaval.
Indeed, the Greens are now the second party across Bavaria, a region associated with traditionalism and dyed-in-the-wool Catholicism, that has long been an unquestioned stronghold for the right. Certainly, the CSU still scraped to first place overall across the whole of Bavaria, while the Greens are not the most left-wing party in Germany’s parliament (that honor goes to Die Linke, a party originally formed from the successors of East Germany’s Communists and a splinter group from the SPD). The impression is somewhat as if the reddest state in the U.S. had suddenly gone wild for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. So what on earth is going on?
The answer is interesting, but complex. For a start, the result isn’t automatically a rejection of Chancellor Angela Merkel, though she’s unlikely to be thrilled. Secondly, in a country where the rise of the extreme right AfD (“Alternative for Germany”) has caused real concern, it reveals that political affiliations are shifting across the board, and not just toward the right.
To make sense of the vote, you need some understanding of the basic cogs within German politics. For one thing, the faction that Chancellor Merkel represents nationally is actually made up of two parties. The largest is the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) of which Merkel herself is a member. Bavaria, however, has long been dominated by the CSU (the Christian Social Union), a sister party that, bar a brief blip in 1976, has always worked in tandem with the CDU and never fields candidates outside its home region.
Despite the close union, the CSU still represents a separate power bloc within the CDU/CSU alliance—a bloc now challenging Merkel’s power. CSU Leader Horst Seehofer has been a thorn in Merkel’s side for a while, in particular criticizing her refugee policy. Fearing a loss of voters to the hard-right AfD, Seehofer has been piloting the CSU toward harsher anti-immigration rhetoric, increased police powers and populist measures such as a law introduced by the regional parliament requiring public buildings in Bavaria—a Catholic region—to display a crucifix.
It didn’t work. The rightward swing has disgusted many, prompting a 20,000-strong demonstration against the police powers bill in Munich earlier this month. Then last Sunday, the party was pummeled at the polls, falling 10.5 percent to 37 percent of all votes across the region, a result that will make it very hard for the party to form a coalition. Meanwhile, the Green Party surged to 17.5 percent of all regional votes (and almost three times that in Munich), almost doubling its representation.
A clear swing from the nationalist right to the ecological center-left then? Ah, but it’s not that simple. The far-right AfD also made gains, getting 10.5 percent of the vote in its first-ever Bavarian election since forming. Meanwhile, many Green votes may have come from another source: the implosion of the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Following a pattern afflicting center-left parties across Europe, the SPD has become something of a spent force since losing power in 2005. The party clings to power in Munich’s municipal elections thanks to a coalition with the Greens, but Sunday result—which saw the SPD vote fall regionally by over 10 percent—suggests that their future in the city is likely as minority partners in a Green-led coalition.
To thicken the plot further, another major faction scored well—the amorphous Free Voters, a party-less association of unaffiliated voters more interested in local than national issues. This cohort tends to have a center-right conservative bent and a mild interest in environmentalism; they picked up 11.6 percent.
From this murky picture, three clear trends emerge. Firstly, Germans on all sides of the political spectrum seem disenchanted with the main parties that previously dominated national politics. Secondly, the rise of the country’s extreme right—a source of much international concern—is just one of several swings, and it has itself created a revolted counter-reaction. And thirdly and perhaps most encouragingly, high levels of concern about the environment are becoming increasingly bipartisan.
Given these national shifts, the Greens’ success in Munich may not be such a surprise. With its longtime support for the Social Democrats, the city was never exactly a right-wing stronghold. But Munich nonetheless represents something specific in Germany. Berlin’s popular image portrays it as edgy and abrasive; Hamburg is quasi-Scandinavian in its mix of tolerance and discreet wealth. Munich has always been seen as conservative with a small c—sophisticated and cosmopolitan to a degree, but also wedded to its traditions and to a certain ideal of consensual cosiness.
The city’s Green turn thus isn’t a sudden flowering of uber-crunchy eco-radicalism; it’s more likely to be a harbinger of the direction many Germans may take in the next national elections: toward a politics that matches environmental concern with a rejection both of the country’s largest parties and of inflammatory anti-migrant rhetoric.