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Trouble in the CSU's Bavarian paradise?

July 22, 2018

Bavaria's CSU party has dominated German national politics for weeks with its hard-line asylum policy. The media circus was viewed as an elaborate campaign strategy ahead of state elections, but has the plan backfired?

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

Horst Seehofer loves his native Bavaria. So when he announced at the last Christian Social Union (CSU) party summit that he would remain leader of the conservative Bavarian party when taking up the post of German interior minister — but hand over the position of state premier to his rival Markus Söder — he emphatically declared: "Bavaria is paradise!" The duo now intend to ensure the CSU will once again win the upcoming Bavarian state elections on October 14.

Trouble in paradise

Bavaria's ruling CSU government is proud of its picturesque state, which has long been a popular destination for foreign tourists. Indeed, Bavaria's Ministry of Economic Affairs, Energy and Technology has even declared that tourism plays a key role in shaping the state's identity. But in the eyes of Bavarian government leadership, the influx of refugees to Germany in 2015 threatened to tarnish the state's image as a tranquil holiday heaven. That's despite the fact that the number of new arrivals has significantly dropped since then.

Read more: How do deportations work in Germany?

Early this summer, Interior Minister Seehofer announced his so-called migration masterplan, with 63 steps to reform the country's approach towards asylum-seekers. However, Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which is allied with the CSU at the national level, rejected Seehofer's plan to turn individuals away at the German border who had already registered in other European Union member states. Merkel told Seehofer to keep his "masterplan" under wraps. Gradually, the conflict between the two conservative politicians escalated into a veritable government crisis. Some observers even feared the rift could bring down the long-standing alliance between the CSU and CDU.

A state party with national influence

So how can the CSU, with its relatively small voter base, have so much influence on German national politics? The reason is simple. The southern state is Germany's largest and generates one-fifth of the country's GDP. And not only that. It has been ruling Bavaria for over six decades. With delegates in almost every administrative district and municipal council, it can implement its policies without much opposition. And even though the CSU is a thoroughly Bavarian party, it also has delegates in Germany's national parliament, the Bundestag. In last year's general election, the party won 6.2 percent of the national vote — thanks mainly to overwhelming support from the Bavarian electorate — and thus entered the Bundestag. For many years, the CSU and CDU have formed a single parliamentary group. Presently, both parties, along with Germany's center-left Social Democrats (SPD), govern the country in a grand coalition.

Strategic tension

Seehofer and Merkel find it difficult to work with each other. The recent fight over Seehofer's "masterplan" is just the latest divisive incident. From the very beginning, Seehofer has taken issue with Merkel's open door policy towards asylum-seekers.

Read more: The challenges of parodying CSU politician Horst Seehofer

And yet, Seehofer's most recent confrontation with Merkel may, in fact, have backfired. Many observers speculated that his insistence on a tougher stance toward asylum-seekers was really about appealing to supporters of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party ahead of Bavarian state elections. Recent polls, however, indicate the CSU is doing poorly in Bavaria, which the SPD and Greens will be happy to capitalize on.

Bavaria's electorate apparently did not appreciate Seehofer's fiercely confrontational approach to Merkel. Indeed, Seehofer even told one media outlet he would not even accept it if Merkel told him to resign because, in his view, her tenure depends on his party.

Bundestag Angela Merkel and Horst Seehofer
The asylum dispute between Merkel and Seehofer threatened to bring down Germany's ruling grand coalitionImage: Getty Images/S. Gallup

Bavarian State Premier Söder, whom The New York Times recently described as "Germany's Donald Trump," has pursued a similarly brash style to Seehofer and has not shied away from controversial statements. He once claimed refugees arriving in Germany were engaging in a kind of "asylum tourism" in search of material benefits. Not only that, after taking up the post of state premier, Söder ordered that all state offices hang a crucifix — a move that even drew criticism from Germany's Christian churches.

Ignoring Christian values?

In an interview with German weekly Die Zeit, the chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, Reinhard Marx, argued that the CSU, which is a self-proclaimed Christian party, "has certain responsibilities in the sense of honoring Christian social values, especially when it comes to helping the poor and weak."

Read more: Germany's new immigration law: What to expect

Seehofer, meanwhile, rejects this criticism and in turn claims the backlash is a deliberate campaign to vilify him and his party. He told German daily Augsburger Allgemeine that his detractors lacked "decency and manners."  

Be that as it may, Bavaria's state elections on October 14 will show whether Seehofer and Söder's confrontational approach has paid off and garnered the CSU additional votes. Or if it has, in fact, backfired.