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Bavaria's CSU puts on show of harmony

Kate Brady Nuremberg
December 16, 2017

Horst Seehofer has been re-elected as Christian Social Union (CSU) leader and Markus Söder is to stand in the Bavarian election. But can a change of face at the top bring back voters? Kate Brady reports from Nuremberg.

Horst Seehofer and Markus Söder
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Hoppe

It's 9 a.m. (800 UTC) in Nuremberg, southern Germany. Between the rows of long, wooden tables that would not be out of place at the Oktoberfest, portly old men — and the odd woman — settle down to breakfast, their white sausages and soft, warm pretzels balanced on a plate in one hand, a half-liter of Bavarian beer in the other. Toto, I’ve a feeling we're not in Berlin anymore. This is CSU land, where Bavaria comes first, Germany second.

"Bavaria should remain Bavaria, but also develop," said soon-to-be Bavarian premier Markus Söder on Saturday.

With two difficult years behind it, the CSU seemed to be back to usual business at its annual two-day party conference. Even Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is also the leader of the CSU's sister party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), made an appearance after a two-year hiatus to take part in what looked like some on-stage political couples therapy with CSU leader Horst Seehofer. It seems that old wounds might be healing.

 Read more: Germany's conservative CDU and CSU: Happy together for now 

Horst Seehofer and Angela Merkel
Has harmony been restored between Seehofer and Merkel?Image: picture-alliance/AA/A. Gebert

But with exploratory coalition talks with the Social Democrats and Merkel's party around the corner, it was crucial at the two-day party conference on Friday and Saturday that the CSU put on a show of harmony: within the conservative bloc it forms with the CDU, within CSU ranks, and between rivals Seehofer and Markus Söder.

Seehofer re-elected

After a long-running, bitter history, the two men at last seemed to have found a solution to their power struggle, even if their greeting at the opening of the party conference seemed somewhat stiff and rehearsed; this was the "CSU Harmony Show," after all.

Deutschland CSU Parteitag in Nürnberg Seehofer und Söder
The old rivalry forgotten for the moment: Horst Seehofer and Markus SöderImage: picture-alliance/dpa/N. Armer

After almost a decade in office as the CSU party leader, Seehofer was re-elected Sunday with 83.7 percent of valid votes: an overwhelming majority, but still down on the result two years ago.

But a lot has happened since then — not least, a disastrous result in September’s federal election that saw the CSU walk away with just 38 percent of the vote: a huge loss compared with their result in the 2013 Bavarian state election, where they won 47.7 percent. Should it fail to gain ground by fall, the CSU will find itself in unprecedented circumstances — and unable to govern in Bavaria with a majority.

'Root of the problem was in Berlin'

But while Seehofer was willing on Saturday to take responsibility for the party’s fall down the polls, he was quick to throw an indirect reproach at Merkel and her CDU, saying that the "root of the problem was in Berlin."

The CDU-CSU bloc lost more than 1 million voters to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in September, with the right-wing populists outmaneuvering the conservatives with their anti-immigrant agenda. With the next Bavarian state election around the corner, the CSU is keen to win back voters who migrated to the right of Germany’s political spectrum.

Member of AfD with banner on back
The anti-immigration AfD has become a force to be reckoned with in the German political landscapeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. von Erichsen

Söder the CSU savior?

Now, all hopes in the CSU camp are on Seehofer’s long-term rival Markus Söder. Confirming a decision that was informally made at a special meeting of CSU parliamentarians earlier in December, the party on Saturday chose Söder to represent the CSU in the Bavarian election. For the first time in the party's history, the CSU has a double leadership, with Seehofer taking care of affairs in Berlin and Söder in Bavaria. As part of the power share, Söder is also expected to take over the Bavarian premiership from Seehofer early next year.

Read more: CSU's Horst Seehofer to step down as Bavaria's premier

Horst Seehoferr
Seehofer is to stand down as Bavarian premierImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Hoppe

"Söder brings a new face, a new way of thinking. He's modern and has a different method of leading and communicating,” the Bavarian state minister for European Affairs, Beate Merk, told DW.

Similarly, Hans Michelbach, a member of the German parliament, said that the 50-year-old Söder provided a "bridge between generations in the party."

As Söder took to the stage on Saturday, his different method of communication was clear. With an elbow casually rested on the pulpit and punchlines packed into his candidacy speech, his relaxed demeanor was a far cry from Seehofer’s upright address.

Politically, however, there's little that differentiates Söder and Seehofer, making the unprecedented change in the CSU leadership more about a change in personality than policy. Only the Bavarian state election will prove whether a change of face in the CSU will be enough to win back the Bavarian conservatives' lost voters.