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Germany's political crisis: What now?

June 15, 2018

Angela Merkel is facing the biggest crisis of her chancellorship. Her conservative Bavarian allies, the CSU, are threatening to abandon her over asylum policy. What will happen next? DW examines the likely scenarios.

Interior minister Horst Seehofer and Chancellor Angela Merkel
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M.Kappeler

German Chancellor Angela Merkel might be thinking that Groundhog Day has set in. Not for the first time in the last few years, Horst Seehofer, the leader of her Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU), is proving more troublesome than political bedfellows are supposed to be.

There is barely a hair's breadth between the basic Christian conservative values of the two parties, and yet the CSU's more overtly anti-immigrant rhetoric has again pushed the alliance into a crisis, a fever exacerbated by the state elections coming up in Bavaria in October. On Thursday, the Bundestag members from the two parties convened separately to determine their next course of action.

A brief false panic on Friday afternoon, set off by a satirist's cunningly worded tweet suggesting the CSU was splitting from Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), touched a deep fear on the center-right of German politics. That would be a massive political earthquake, and its consequences would last longer than the hastily arranged election that would have to follow.

Read more: German press examines Angela Merkel, Horst Seehofer migration row

Still, politicians from the Bavarian party have made the threat before — most recently in 2015, the last time that Seehofer clashed publicly with the chancellor over asylum policy. But this time, the fact that he is also interior minister, and so directly responsible for border controls, gives the affair a new urgency. So what are the likely scenarios in the present crisis? Here are the options:

A compromise

The crisis is centered on the "master plan" that Interior Minister Seehofer wanted to present on Tuesday, but which was scuppered at the eleventh hour by Merkel because one of its 63 points — turning asylum-seekers away at the German border — would violate European Union agreements and would be very difficult to implement practically.

Germans differ on CDU-CSU rift

Seehofer could simply relent on this point — after all, the master plan still represents the kind of major political stamp he would like to make in his new ministerial role.

For a while, it looked like the CSU was more likely to back down: German news agency DPA reported this week that the Bavarian party offered two compromises at a crisis meeting on Wednesday night — both involved asylum-seekers being turned away at the border — with the decision being reversed following a vital EU summit in a couple of weeks.

Merkel rejected both ideas. For her, the imperative is to buy time until that summit — if all goes well, she can preserve international agreements while still keeping the right of her own coalition happy.

Seehofer goes it alone

But CSU politicians are briefing reporters that Merkel has got to make a decision by Monday. If no deal is reached, they say, Seehofer will simply impose the regulation using his authority as interior minister — a position that gives him authority over the federal police, and therefore border controls.

Read more: CSU leader Horst Seehofer: The man who could bring down Angela Merkel?

But this move would only trigger a new crisis, because Merkel as chancellor has the ultimate power to determine the government's policy guidelines. In other words, Merkel has the constitutional right to overrule Seehofer and make him do what she says.

Seehofer resigns or is sacked

If it does come down to a straight power standoff between the two party leaders, and Merkel simply overrules Seehofer, then the interior minister's resignation (or his sacking) would seem to be the next inevitable step.

That, pundits agree, would mean the collapse of the coalition government, and probably also the final split between the CDU and the CSU. In the ensuing election, the political map would have to be redrawn, because presumably the CDU would then field candidates in Bavaria. This would inevitably mean a drastic weakening of the CSU — and its potential relegation to a regional party, rather than a regional party within federal party, as it is now. This is essentially unthinkable in the context of their historical alliance — but can't be ruled out now.

Jens Spahn
A man biding his time: Jens Spahn Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

Merkel calls a no-confidence vote in the Bundestag

Another way out of the impasse would be for Merkel to go to the German parliament, thus testing the loyalty of CDU parliamentarians — and indeed the loyalty of center-left Social Democrat (SPD) Bundestag members, who represent the third party in the country's ruling grand coalition. In fact, as it stands, the SPD votes could be the most reliable for Merkel. That of course entails its own risk — if she loses, she would step down and there would be a new election.

The CDU executive committee is solidly behind the chancellor —at least that is what Schleswig-Holstein State Premier Daniel Günther told the daily Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung.

And yet, there are vultures circling in the CDU: Jens Spahn, health minister and Merkel's most vocal internal critic, kept his distance at the Bundestag meeting, and was the only member of the party executive committee to vote against Merkel's own compromise suggestion.

Read more: CSU defies Merkel on asylum policy

Ominously for the chancellor, Spahn has good relations with another CSU bigwig, Alexander Dobrindt, and the head of the Free Democrats (FDP), Christian Lindner — the business-friendly party that sparked last year's political crisis by blocking any coalition with the CDU as long as it had Merkel at the helm. All three want Germany to take a tougher stance on asylum reform. If Merkel's time does draw to a close, this conservative neoliberal triumvirate is most likely to step into the breach.

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