It’s hard to explain the Christian Social Union – and thus the current political crisis – to people outside Germany. Many countries have regional parties that project national power; just think of Scotland, Quebec or Catalonia. But no other party system in the world contains a relationship as convoluted as that between the CSU and its “sister,” the Christian Democratic Union of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Both parties were born in the chaos following World War II. They were “Christian unions” because they hoovered up remnants of Catholic and Protestant parties that had existed during the Weimar Republic. Because of that early preponderance of dark-robed clergy, they were derided as “black.” With shrewd marketing jiu-jitsu, they embraced that color and donned it proudly.
Both are what Americans call big tents: amalgamations of interest groups, from social conservatives to free marketeers and Catholic socialists. In Germany, the Christian Democrats count as center-right; in America, they would get along best with moderate Democrats.
The CSU is a bit further right. More importantly, it exists only in Bavaria. Its shtick, as it were, is that it is a party of Bavarians, by Bavarians, for Bavarians. Its iconography is replete with lederhosen, white-blue (never blue-white!) flags, beer steins and the rest of it.
The deal between the sisters is that the CDU exists in all other states (nowadays 15) but fields no candidates in Bavaria, while the CSU stays in its home state. The twist is this: In the national parliament, the CDU and CSU form one single group.
That’s why the CSU can claim not only to run Bavaria (which it does well) but also to project a Bavarian voice onto German and European politics. The former CSU stalwart who embodied this combination of provincial kingpin and global statesman was Franz Josef Strauss. It was also Strauss who, in a fit of megalomania in 1976, briefly quit the relationship, before realizing he needed sis too much.
But the CSU’s current boss, Horst Seehofer, and his likely successor have perverted the legacy of Strauss. Gone is the worldliness; what remains is provincial stuffiness, which increasingly reeks of populism. Since the refugee crisis of 2015, Seehofer has been Merkel’s most insidious antagonist. By threatening overt rebellion in migrant policy (in his capacity as federal interior minister) and risking a breach of the parliamentary union, he is in effect scheming to topple her.
It’s time for the CDU to end this nonsense, and for Merkel to call his bluff. Bavarians have a right to vote for the CDU, and all Germans for the CSU, if they wish. The CDU should annul the old deal, campaign all over Germany, then look for coalition partners among all other parties. If the CSU is reasonable, it might even be chosen.
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