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Can the CSU topple Merkel for her refugee policies?

There have been judiciously planted rumors that Chancellor Angela Merkel's Bavarian allies, the CSU, want to split the coalition over her refugee policy. It's a nasty threat, analysts say, but just a negotiating tactic.

Angela Merkel has received another ultimatum from her troublesome Bavarian allies. With fresh talks on Germany's refugee policies looming between the three government parties, this week the Christian Social Union (sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union) pointedly kept its options open about the future of the coalition government - and even its historic pact with the chancellor's party.

"We're prepared for anything," CSU leader and Bavarian State Premier Horst Seehofer told the state parliament in Munich on Wednesday. "Legally, politically, we're assessing this and that." On the same day, the tabloid "Bild" printed rumors from "close confidants" of Seehofer that the CSU was prepared to withdraw its three ministers from the federal cabinet should Merkel not take tougher action to control immigration.

CSU Markus Söder Horst Seehofer

Söder had to go and bring up 1976

Then, while the CSU offices were failing to deny the story on Thursday, Bavarian Finance Minister Markus Söder told the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" that the historic pact between the CDU and the CSU was facing its "most difficult situation since 1976," and that what was at stake were the party's core capacities: "interior security and the rule of law."

1976 and all that

The 1976 reference was a painful dagger to twist. In November of that year, the CSU voted to break the age-old pact between the two "Union" parties after they narrowly lost a general election in West Germany. For a month or so, it looked as though the CSU would field candidates outside Bavaria and the CDU would do the same inside the state - only for CSU leader Franz Josef Strauss to get cold feet when he realized his party did not enjoy enough support across Germany to threaten the CDU.

But the circumstances in 1976 were very different, CDU historian Frank Bösch said. For one thing, the stakes were lower because the parties were not in government and so weren't risking new elections. On top of that, the 1976 crisis was an old-fashioned clash between two political alpha stags. "That was power poker - the personal rift between (CDU leader Helmut) Kohl and Strauss was much stronger," Bösch told DW. "That was a deep, old enmity with mutual hostility that had been pent up for years. And I don't see that situation between Merkel and Seehofer."

Nor does Bösch think it would be in the interest of either party to split now. "In those days the Union parties were much stronger," he said. "That would be the end of the CDU/CSU - they won't do that."

Deutschland Flüchtlinge Essensausgabe

Bavaria has taken the bulk of Germany's refugees

Escalation level one

After nearly 70 years of cooperation, the CDU and the CSU are so closely intertwined that a divorce would be messy and complex - and certainly couldn't be decided by Seehofer alone. "It's not an empty threat, but it's not something that could be decided easily and overnight," said Thomas Schlemmer, CSU specialist at Munich's Institute for Contemporary History IfZ. "None of them can possibly want new elections now. I see it as another attempt to push Merkel in the direction that Seehofer wants to go." For extra leverage, Seehofer knows he is also pushing sympathetic buttons in certain parts of the CDU, where some members have made their displeasure with the chancellor's policy.

On the other hand, Merkel is not exactly going soft on refugees - her government has just passed a slew of measures designed to cut "incentives" for migrants coming to Germany and speed up deportations, and is now even discussing deporting Afghans back to a country that is still in armed conflict. Meanwhile, she is working on agreements designed to introduce quotas across EU member states. "We can't turn the switch in one go," she said in response to Seehofer's "ultimatum." "We have to go step by step."

Indeed, even if the CSU were to withdraw its ministers from the cabinet, it would not necessarily mean a break between the CDU and the CSU - only a break in their governing coalition. "There are basically three escalation steps," Schlemmer said. "From the withdrawal of the ministers, to breaking the parliamentary faction, to open competition between the two parties in all German states. We're only at the threat of the first escalation step, and I can't imagine that anyone wants to go further."

Regional party with federal powers

Horst Seehofer CSU Parteitag München Bayern 23.11.2013

The CSU's primary concern has always been: What's in it for Bavaria?

The refugee crisis has aggravated the peculiar dual role that the CSU plays in the German political system: It is a regional party that expressly protects Bavarian interests but also harbors powers that affect all of Germany - even if its three ministries in the current cabinet (Transport, Agriculture, and Economic Cooperation and Development) are minor. "The CSU's participation in the government is always under the slogan 'What's in it for Bavaria?'" Schlemmer said.

But since Bavaria - because of its geographical position - has had to cope with the bulk of the refugees entering Germany, the CSU also has an urgent interest in forcing Merkel's hand on the matter. Seehofer's dual role as party leader and Bavarian state premier means that he is confronted with the logistical problems of the refugee influx every day. "And he wants to implement a solution his way," Schlemmer said. "That means a discussion on limiting the number of refugees, which Angela Merkel is avoiding."

Seehofer and the CSU are under intense pressure to show that they can control the refugee influx - if only to head off the competition from the populist right. (In recent polls, the CSU has slipped to 43 percent support in Bavaria, while the Alternative for Germany party has climbed to 9 percent). Still, the party's tough stance against Merkel has doubtless meant that the anti-Islamization group PEGIDA has struggled to find a foothold in Bavaria. Again, building a broad church for conservatives is nothing new. The CSU's political strategy was once neatly formulated by Strauss: "There must be no democratically legitimate party right of the CSU."

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