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Angela Merkel's Bavarian allies CSU threaten rightward shift

September 26, 2017

The Christian Social Union (CSU) was one of many old German parties to suffer at the hands of the AfD in the election. But Merkel's Bavarian sister party has another problem — an upcoming state election at home.

CSU leaders
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Hoppe

Among the many earthquakes in Germany's political landscape triggered by the German election was the destruction of a decades-old dictum once uttered by the Christian Social Union's (CSU) most famed leader Franz Josef Strauss: "There must be no democratically legitimate party right of the CSU."

Sunday's devastating results for Germany's conservative parties seemed to show that the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) as a populist far-right force across Germany has forever buried that notion. The CSU, Bavarian allies to Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) but traditionally a little more conservative, scored its lowest ever result on Sunday, with just under 39 percent of the vote in its home state — over 10 percentage points down on 2013.

Media commentators were quick to draw two conclusions — that CSU leader Horst Seehofer's position was looking very precarious, and the CSU will have to shift to the right to win back its lost voters — particularly ahead of the Bavarian state election next fall. For now, the CSU holds an absolute majority in Bavaria, the only German state with a single-party government.

Many pundits noted with furrowed brows that this was going to make it even more difficult for Merkel to bring the CSU into a coalition with the nominally more left-wing Green party — even though the "Jamaica coalition," a four-way combination of the CDU/CSU, Greens, and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), appears to be the chancellor's only option.

CDU and CSU leaders
The marriage between the CDU and the CSU has been going through a rocky patch of lateImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

Asylum seeker limit

One immediate impact of these new circumstances — the CSU's desperation and Merkel's weakened negotiating position — is that the CSU will try to make a fixed upper limit on asylum seekers a condition of joining any new government.

That issue, which threatened to split the age-old bond between the CDU and the CSU at the height of the refugee crisis, was brought up in the aftermath of Sunday's carnage by Joachim Herrmann, Bavarian Interior Minister. "We're not prepared to give that up," the senior CSU figure told Deutschlandfunk radio on Tuesday, before adding that the election had made clear that the majority of voters wanted such a limit.

But Werner Weidenfeld, political science professor at the Ludwig Maximilian University Munich, warned that it wouldn't do for the CSU simply to shift to the right. "They can't do that because then they'd make room in the center," he said. "That's why it's just a big problem for the CSU, because it's not just the loss of a few percentage points of voters, but because the AfD has established itself."

"That's why the CSU will take a confrontational tone in Berlin, and by the end Merkel will realize that her biggest problem in the coalition negotiations won't be the Greens or the FDP, but the CSU — because they're up against immense pressure," he said.

Bavaria first

In other words, the CSU will take a "Bavaria first" approach — lay its Bavarian-centered election plan on the negotiating table and fight for every single point on it. Of course, seeing as it's a four-way negotiation, the CSU will inevitably have to make compromises, but it will do everything to show its voters back home that it is a powerful force for Bavarian interests. "On the night of the national election, the state election campaign began in Bavaria, and it would be a nightmare for the CSU if anything like that happened again," said Weidenfeld.

Thomas Schlemmer, political scientist and CSU specialist at Munich's Institute for Contemporary History (IfZ), was more sanguine about the CSU's prospects. "You know how much the Social Democrats got in Bavaria? Fifteen percent," he pointed out. "If you look at the other parties, the CSU still got a very strong result."

AfD party in Bavaria
The AfD took 12.4 percent of the vote in BavariaImage: picture alliance/dpa/M. Balk

Schlemmer also believed that the newly emerging, or re-emerging, parties were not nearly as strong a force in Bavaria as it might appear now. The FDP, he said, was "traditionally a rollercoaster party in Bavaria — sometimes they're in the state parliament and sometimes they're out of it."

"And what becomes of the AfD, no one really knows," he said. "Yesterday [AfD Bundestag members] Frauke Petry left, today Marcus Pretzell. Who knows who it'll be tomorrow?"

Heinrich Oberreuter, veteran CSU member and political scientist at the Institute for Journalism in the Bavarian city of Passau, dismissed the notion that the CSU would suddenly start taking on the more radical AfD positions in an attempt to win back voters.

"It might lose some of its inhibitions about talking about problems — it was the only party that addressed the issues when it came to the challenge of the refugees, and it will carry on doing that," he said.  "What else can it do? It certainly won't start praising National Socialism or some nonsense like that. And it won't become any more populist than it is already."

Oberreuter suggested that the problem wasn't just confined to the CSU anyway. "The point is this: within the conservative camp, that is the CDU and the CSU, members no longer want to support the Merkel position — namely, the social democratization of the CDU," he said. "I think Merkel will get a lot more resistance from her own base in the CDU too."

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight