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Germany

Squabbling to win over AfD voters

The CDU and CSU are actually an alliance, but they are now openly quarreling over how to manage the masses of refugees in the country. The discord has given rise to thoughts of separation.

Before the refugee influx, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) seldom locked horns with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). When asked how the masses of refugees would be dealt with, the answer ranges from Merkel's "We can do it" to the CSU's "We will change it." The dissent between the parties was probably the reason why Merkel did not attend this year's CSU party congress, and it is expected that Horst Seehofer, the head of the CSU, will not attend the CDU party congress at the beginning of December.

Relations at lowest point since 1976

The dispute among the two parties has escalated to the point that thoughts of separation have arisen for the first time in decades. Yet behind this idea lie more fundamental issues: Will the CSU run in other German states, even though it is a Bavarian party? Or will the CDU, which is not politically present in Bavaria, establish itself in Germany's largest state? It would not be the first time that the party has raised this idea.

Audioslideshow Helmut Kohl (picture-alliance/dpa)

Helmut Kohl and Franz Josef Strauß at a party convention on Oct. 05, 1980

On November 19, 1976, at the CSU conclave, the Bavarian party decided to end the conservative alliance with the CDU. The news came like a bombshell. It was the era of intense rivalry between the CSU's outspoken chairman Franz Josef Strauss and Helmut Kohl, who was CDU chairman at the time. Both politicians felt constrained by the alliance and each of them believed himself to be the better chancellor candidate. In a secretly recorded speech, Strauss said Helmut Kohl was "completely incapable" and predicted that he would never become chancellor. The prophecy proved to be wrong.

The battle between the sister parties raged for three weeks. On December 12, the CSU officially took back its decision. It turned out to be beneficial. After the separation proposal was withdrawn, the CSU gained strength within the alliance. Ever since then, the smaller party from Bavaria has had the right to veto important political matters.

Ultimately, the conflict was about power. In the 1976 parliamentary elections, Helmut Kohl ran as the CDU's chancellor candidate but lost. The CSU was particularly frustrated; however, Strauss, who ran against the SPD's Helmut Schmidt in 1980, also lost.

The CDU in Bavaria?

What prompted the CDU to give in? Helmut Kohl threatened to march into Bavaria with the CDU. That worked. On the other hand, the CDU knows what the smaller Bavarian sister is good for on a federal level. No other party in Bavaria has managed to rule with an absolute majority as often as the CSU. The political heavyweight in Germany's southernmost state has often helped the alliance achieve success on a federal level and has bound the ultra-conservative voters to the conservative alliance – at least in Bavaria.

To the right of the CDU/CSU's alliance

The alliance is concerned about the successful newcomer Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party that leans even further to the right. Strauss' old adage about a wall being the only thing allowed to exist to the right of the conservative alliance is no longer valid. That is why the CSU does not publicly follow the same line on refugee policy as the chancellor. The CSU accuses Angela Merkel of wasting voter potential on the right fringes because of her refugee policy.

Porträt AFD Frauke Petry (Getty Images/T. Lohnes)

AfD leader Frauke Petry

The CDU has in fact been losing voters to the AfD for months. On the other hand, AfD supporters actually trust CSU chairman Horst Seehofer more than AfD chairwoman Frauke Petry. It seems that the sister parties have unofficially agreed that the controversy can be used as an election strategy. The CSU has now openly adopted the AfD's refugee position.

Horst Seehofer wants to accept difficult views in the population. He suggests that too many politicians in Berlin are of the opinion that the people disrupt politicians' entitlement to "be right." This view goes over well with his party's base and also with potential AfD voters. It could actually work to Angela Merkel's advantage as a CDU/CSU alliance would then embrace the "We can do it" voters as well as the "We will change it" camp.

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