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Freelance journalist currently based in Berlin, chronicling the effects of populism on elections in Europe. Former Washington-based political reporter for CBS News, Politico and National Journal.
Bavarian voters on Sunday delivered a major rebuke to the center-right Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and the party that has dominated the federal state's politics for decades. Ultimately, the CSU won 37.2 percent of the vote, dropping 10 points since the last election, requiring them to find a coalition partner in order to govern.
The CSU is, of course, not alone: its electoral disaster is just the latest in a string of elections showing the decline of center-right and center-left parties across Europe. But it was also a defeat for one man in particular: Bavarian Premier Markus Söder, who was behind the decision to shift the party's rhetoric sharply to the right on migration and integration issues. Beginning earlier this year, when he took over the post and became co-leader of the CSU, Söder spoke out more forcefully on migration issues, calling for a border police force and advocating for turning asylum-seekers away at the German border. The party's newly hardline position on such issues went so far that it nearly caused the breakdown of the federal government in Berlin this summer.
There is a great deal of debate within center-right parties about how to stop their electoral bleeding, particularly to far-right populist parties such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD). One school of thought holds that such parties should, as the CSU did, move to the right and co-opt the immigration issue from the far right. Bavaria's election was proof that strategy doesn't work: plenty of right-wing CSU voters went to the AfD anyway, and the party's more centrist voters opted for the Greens instead. As this debate about the future of the center-right continues, Söder and the CSU will provide one important data point.