German voters handed a victory on Sunday to mainstream conservatives in a state election in Bavaria — as well as in the smaller central state of Hesse — while punishing the three parties running the country.
While all three of the governing parties lost votes, symbolically at least, the far-right Alternative for Germany and another populist party were the evening’s clear victors, notching record results in both states when compared with other western states.
The results were considered an important midterm report card for the national coalition government of the Social Democratic chancellor, Olaf Scholz, which received some tough grades. They were also seen as a bellwether of the larger political trends building in the country, not least the fracturing of the political landscape as populist and far-right parties make inroads.
Here’s what happened and what it means.
The mainstream is eroding.
In Bavaria, the conservative Christian Social Union, which has governed the southern region for nearly seven decades, received its lowest level of support in more than a half-century, garnering less than 37 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results.
That will allow the incumbent governor, Markus Söder, to serve another term, but only in coalition with the populist Free Voters, who came in at just over 15 percent of the vote, despite a last-minute antisemitism scandal involving the party’s firebrand leader, Hubert Aiwanger.
In Hesse, which has fewer than half the voters of Bavaria, the incumbent governor for the conservative Christian Democratic Union, or C.D.U., won a decisive victory after an ineffective campaign by the federal interior minister, who ran for the Social Democrats and came in third, behind the far-right AfD.
But it was the vote in Bavaria that was the most closely watched, and the outcome was taken as further evidence of the erosion of Germany’s traditional mainstream political parties, left and right. It is a phenomenon that has been witnessed across Europe — in Spain, Italy and France, as well as in Scandinavian countries.
Less than a generation ago, the Christian Social Union could depend on the support of large masses of German voters, earning it the name Volkspartei, or people’s party.
“The crisis of the mainstream parties has also reached Bavaria and is hitting the CSU with increasing force,” said Thomas Schlemmer, a historian of Bavarian politics. “Today, you vote based on your individual lifestyle, not because of tradition.”
Even before Sunday’s vote, Mr. Söder and his Christian Social Union were having to govern in coalition with the populist Free Voters. Now, they will be even more dependent on the Free Voters, underscoring the Christian Social Union’s increasing vulnerability.
Much the same has happened nationally to its sister party, the much larger C.D.U., the party of former Chancellor Angela Merkel, as center-right support has been eaten into by populist and extremist parties, like AfD.
Virtually the only reason the AfD, which came in second at 16 percent, did not do better in Bavaria was the presence of Free Voters, a homegrown Bavarian party with populist tendencies, which split the right-wing vote.
Populists are rising.
The Free Voters, a party that was founded by independent municipal and district politicians in 2009, is playing an ever-larger role in Bavarian state politics, where it is once again expected to be the junior partner in the state coalition.
Its outsize role has underscored the rise of populist forces nationwide.
Mr. Aiwanger, a fiery beer-tent speaker, has become the face of the party, bringing it further toward populism by criticizing immigration and environmental legislation.
At an event this summer, Mr. Aiwanger called for the “silent majority” to “take back democracy” from the government in Berlin, in language that for many Germans evoked the country’s Nazi past. Although he was criticized by other politicians and the mainstream news media, the speech did nothing to quell his popularity among voters.
“The success of the Free Voters is due to Hubert Aiwanger’s populist impulses and not to the constructive policies they have pursued in the municipalities for many decades,” said Roman Deininger, a reporter with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a daily newspaper based in Munich, who has followed Bavarian politics for decades.
Mr. Aiwanger and his party managed to succeed despite a campaign marred by scandal in August, when Mr. Aiwanger was discovered to have had a homemade antisemitic handbill in his possession while he was in high school in the 1980s.
Mr. Aiwanger quickly turned the scandal into an advantage, claiming that the newspaper that broke the story had waited until the heat of the campaign to discredit him. Voters apparently believed the narrative: Mr. Aiwanger and his party saw a bump in polling numbers.
The Greens are despised.
Throughout the campaign, conservative and populist parties made the left-leaning environmentalist Green party a stand-in for the governing coalition of Mr. Scholz.
Though the Greens are just one of three parties in the coalition, along with the center-left Social Democrats and the pro-business Free Democrats, they were singled out for special antipathy.
“The Greens are the new enemy,” said Andrea Römmele, a political analyst at the Hertie School, a university in Berlin. “It’s a framing that the Greens are somehow the party of bans and the opponent in a culture war.”
The verbal attacks seemed to have had an effect. During one campaign appearance in Neu-Ulm, in the west of the state, Katharina Schulze and Ludwig Hartmann, the co-chairs of the Bavarian Greens, were onstage when a man in the crowd threw a stone at them.
“That really was a shock,” Ms. Schulze, who campaigns with a police security detail, said in an interview.
There were no confrontations during a majority of her campaign stops, she said, but added, “Of course our political competitors like to pour oil on the fire.”
Despite that, the Greens in Bavaria came in at just under 15 percent.
Mr. Söder, the governor, himself vowed he would not form a coalition with the Greens — even though Sunday’s election returns gave him the numbers to do so — and instead said he would continue in coalition with the populist Free Voters.
“With their worldview, the Greens do not fit Bavaria, and that is why there will be no Greens in the Bavarian state government,” Mr. Söder said during a campaign stop in September. “No way!”
Mr. Scholz’s coalition is in trouble.
Although the results in Bavaria have no direct consequence on the government in Berlin, all three parties in the national coalition lost significant voter share in the election.
The liberal Free Democratic Party, which occupies the important post of finance minister, is predicted to fail entry into the state house because of its bad showing.
That portends badly for Mr. Scholz, who is about two years into a four-year term, especially because parties in Bavaria ran against his coalition in Berlin as much as against each other.
In their stump speeches, both Mr. Söder and Mr. Aiwanger made dissatisfaction with the Berlin government their theme, railing against perceived dictums on gender-neutral speech, vegetarianism and rules for heating private homes — a Green party push that has engendered special animus.
They also pushed back against the unpopular decision to close the three remaining nuclear power plants this past April.
“The coalition is the worst government Germany has ever had,” Mr. Söder said during a speech last month.
While such statements are typical of over-the-top campaigning, a recent opinion poll shows that 79 percent of Germans are unhappy with the coalition. Only 19 percent are satisfied with its work.
Those are the government’s lowest approval ratings since it was formed in December 2021.