Things to know about Bavaria′s Christian Social Union | What you need to know | DW | 13.06.2017
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What you need to know

Things to know about Bavaria's Christian Social Union

Bavarians are known for their independence. The political expression of this is the regional conservative party the Christian Social Union - the feisty southern sibling to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats.

One of the unique features of Germany's political landscape is the existence of the Christian Social Union, a separate Bavarian conservative party that sometimes complements, sometimes rivals and sometimes just runs parallel to the main nationwide conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union. Often dismissed as a mere appendage of the CDU, the CSU is also an occasional thorn in the side of Chancellor Angela Merkel's party.

Bavarian beer is constant feature at CSU party events

Bavarian beer is constant feature at CSU party events

The CSU arose in 1945, immediately after the end of World War II, at a time when conservative parties and associations were coalescing all over Germany. But, whereas the other local conservative parties joined together in 1950 to form the CDU, or were swallowed up by it, the CSU chose to retain its independence. 

That was in part because there had traditionally been at least one Bavarian regional interest party in German politics. The CSU fit this mold, and, after dispatching a couple of rival local parties in the 1950s, it established itself as the dominant force in southeastern Germany. The CSU usually polls at over 50 percent in elections in Bavaria and governs with an absolute majority in the state parliament.

Because of Bavaria's size, CSU supporters regularly make up 7 to 10 percent of voters overall in Germany's federal elections. That's impressive considering that the party doesn't even run anywhere outside of Bavaria. And make no mistake about this party's pride in Bavaria: If there's an opportunity to demonstrate Bavarian cultural peculiarities by wearing felt hats and lederhosen, rest assured that the CSU will take it.

Seehofer and Merkel don't always see eye to eye

Seehofer and Merkel don't always see eye to eye

Where they differ

As a rule, the CSU is more conservative than the CDU, especially on religion and law enforcement, while being to the left of the national party on social welfare issues. The difference is contained within the names of the two parties. The CSU takes the term "social” quite seriously, demanding for instance that the state do more to assist mothers who don't want to work. 

The party's stance on non-Germans, however, is less generous. The CSU was the force behind the newly installed passenger car toll on the autobahn, which is widely seen as a way of extracting money from non-Germans. And the party also favors quicker deportations for refugees who commit crimes and wants to see a specific cap on the number of people who receive asylum each year.

The party's chairman, Horst Seehofer, has insisted on such a cap as a precondition for coalition deals with any party - including the CDU. Thus far, Chancellor Merkel has pretty much ignored this demand, but it does illustrate the potential for conflict within the conservative camp.

Deutschland Franz Josef Strauß letzter Auftritt beim Aschermittwoch (picture alliance/augenklick/firo Sportphoto)

The ultraconservative Strauss was put forward as chancellor candidate in 1960

Aspirations to lead

On two occasions, the parties have put forward a CSU candidate for chancellor. Franz Josef Strauss ran in 1980, and Edmund Stoiber got to throw his hat in the ring in 2002.

Neither was successful. Strauss was an extreme conservative and came in second to incumbent Helmut Schmidt; Stoiber failed to appeal to voters in northern Germany and lost a narrow contest to officeholder Gerhard Schröder. The latter result likely spelled an end to any further CSU chancellor candidates for the foreseeable future.  In the 2005 election, both parties opted to support the CDU's Merkel, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The CSU is proudly Bavarian and doesn't run anywhere else

The CSU is proudly Bavarian and doesn't run anywhere else

The party names are often hyphenated as CDU-CSU. This reflects the fact that they function as a single group in parliament.

Schröder, still the chancellor at the time, tried to claim election victory in 2005 by arguing that ballots for the CDU and CSU should be counted separately. That would have meant that Schröder's SPD secured the most votes - and the mandate to form a new government.

Few people bought that line of reasoning. The majority of Germans most of the time see the CDU-CSU as a single political entity. Nonetheless, depending on how well the CSU does in this September's election, Seehofer will be more or less vocal in his demands for policy concessions in return for his party's allying itself with the CDU, even though everyone knows that the CSU will do so anyway.

Theoretically, it would be possible for the CSU to branch off on its own. In the first three decades of the Federal Republic, there were repeated calls for the CSU to campaign nationally and establish itself as a "fourth force" in German politics, after the CDU, the SPD and the Free Democrats. But that idea has been defunct for quite some time. The conservatives in the felt hats and lederhosen may be capable of getting up Angela Merkel's nose with their unwelcome demands at times, but they remain very much subordinated to the popular chancellor and conservatives in the rest of Germany.

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