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MUNICH, Germany — The Freie Wähler, a small right-wing party that, until recently, few outside of Bavaria had even heard of, may end up making an outsize difference in Germany’s tight election race.
During a campaign in which no party has been able to hold a clear lead in the polls, the Freie Wähler — or “Free Voters” — have become emblematic of Germany’s increasingly fractured political landscape, illustrating how even the smallest shift in margins spurred by some of the smallest parties may drastically alter the outcome of the vote.
The Freie Wähler emerged as part of Bavaria’s right-wing coalition government in 2018, a rise to power that was mainly due to a steep drop in support for Bavaria’s long-ruling Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
The CSU had ruled over Bavaria since 1957, most of that time with an absolute majority. But newly weakened, they needed a coalition partner to govern. For Markus Söder, the CSU’s leader and Bavaria’s premier, the right-wing Freie Wähler seemed like the most natural ally.
That was then.
Now that the Freie Wähler are pursuing federal ambitions to make it into the Bundestag, Söder — as well as other conservatives within Germany’s center-right CDU-CSU bloc — fear the party will succeed at nothing other than siphoning off important conservative votes in what is turning out to be a neck-and-neck contest.
“There’s no point in supporting them at all,” Söder said of the Freie Wähler recently. Anyone who votes for the party, he added, “must expect that in the end, the Greens will get the chancellery.”
Potential for damage
To enter the Bundestag, parties must win at least 5 percent of the vote — a threshold put in place to limit the kind of political fragmentation and tumult that characterized the Weimar Republic.
Few experts believe the Freie Wähler will meet that threshold. In POLITICO’s Poll of Polls they stand at around 3 percent.”
“With the exception of regional strongholds, which mainly include Bavaria, but also Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt, I see little potential for the Freie Wähler,” said Ursula Münch, director of the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing outside Munich.
Still, it’s clear that members of the CDU and CSU see, even in the Freie Wähler’s relatively limited appeal, great potential for damage.
In recent polls, the CDU and Social Democrats are neck and neck, with both having good prospects of leading Germany’s next coalition government.
At times, Söder has appeared visibly jittery over the prospect of Germany’s conservative bloc losing power. At times, he’s blamed Armin Laschet, who, in April, defeated Söder in the intraparty contest to become the CDU-CSU chancellor candidate.
A party for anti-vaxxers?
Many on Germany’s center-right have another pressing concern: The questionable methods Freie Wähler candidates are using to lure voters.
The party has long been seen as occupying a space on the political spectrum between the CSU and the far-right Alternative for Germany. Some have derided the party as “AfD light.”
Hubert Aiwanger, the leader of the Freie Wähler and Bavaria’s deputy state premier, has sparked uproar by catering to anti-vaccine sentiments bordering on conspiracy theories.
During a radio interview earlier this summer, Aiwanger said there should be no “hunt” for those who haven’t been vaccinated in Germany. He himself, he added, would not get vaccinated until he is “convinced that it makes more sense” to do so.
“There is no need to make a secret of the fact that in my personal environment I hear more and more about people that have to endure massive side effects of vaccination — I don’t want to list all the things, but there are times when you can’t believe your ears.”
GERMANY NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS
For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.
Responding to the interview, Söder said he was “worried” about his economy minister, and suggested the comments put him in too-close proximity to the AfD, the party that has most aligned itself to Germany’s loud anti-vax movement.
Aiwanger then fired back, calling Söder’s comment “outrageous.”
Experts believe Aiwanger’s anti-vax statements are part of a calculated strategy. Comments like this serve to establish the Freie Wähler as an acceptable alternative to the CSU for voters disaffected by the government’s handling of the pandemic, according to Münch.
“At least in Bavaria, the issue of vaccination is now also used to mobilize those who are generally dissatisfied with the government’s coronavirus policies, but do not want to vote for the AfD.”
In large swaths of Bavaria and beyond, there is no shortage of people who fit just that description.
Pleasing the crowd
An hour southeast of Munich, the crystalline Chiemsee lake gently nestles into imposing Alpine slopes.
One recent afternoon at a restaurant in the peaceful lakeside village of Gollenshausen, Andrea Wittmann, 48, who plays the organ in the local church, stopped in for a salad, taking a break from campaigning to become an MP for the Freie Wähler.
Wittmann, a former world champion yodeler, was far from satisfied with how Söder and the CSU had managed the pandemic.
“I don’t understand what Markus Söder and the CSU did during this corona winter,” she said.
She listed her grievances. How did it make sense that Munich could host matches of the European Championship soccer tournament, but children weren’t allowed to go to school? Why is it that Germans were allowed to vacation in Mallorca, but not in Bavaria?
“Many jobs were lost to other industries, or they went across the border to Austria where regulations were different,” Wittmann said.
Indeed, during the pandemic, Söder presented himself as a bold leader, unafraid to take swift but painful measures to reduce infections while other conservatives were more equivocal. While many approved, lifting Söder’s profile on a national level, he undoubtedly also alienated portions of his CSU base.
At the time, Aiwanger tried to capitalize, stylizing himself in particular as the patron of the suffering hotel and restaurant industries.
“In the peak phase of the pandemic, many people felt better represented and understood by Aiwanger, at least emotionally,” said Münch.
But many suggest these were empty words. Martin Hagen, leader of the pro-business Free Democrats in the Bavarian parliament, said Aiwanger has always tended to be a populist in his ability to please a crowd.
“During the debates surrounding pandemic restrictions, he agreed to everything that was decided in Söder’s cabinet, but the day after, he went out to complain about it,” said Hagen. “This really started pissing off the CSU.”