Election Fallout

Exit Center, Enter Right

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Looking to the Right: Chancellor Angela Merkel and CSU leader Horst Seehofer. Source: Reuters

Angela Merkel wants voters to know that she gets the message. The German chancellor vowed on Monday to win back the voters who deserted her centrist party and helped elect a populist, anti-immigrant party to the German parliament for the first time.

Ms. Merkel, whose Christian Democrats emerged as the largest party but with a substantially reduced presence in parliament, told a news conference she would attempt to entice back those voters who had opted for the right-wing Alternative for Germany, known as the AfD, by “solving their problems, dealing with their fears and above all by good policies.”

How exactly will she listen? On Sunday, Ms. Merkel indicated the next government would move a step to the right, promising to increase her government’s efforts to curtail illegal immigration, the one issue that caught the imagination of many disaffected Germans and the AfD was able to successfully exploit.

Her comments in the past two days were aimed not only at soothing restive voters, but her allies in the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, which said its support could no longer be taken for granted unless Ms. Merkel provided firm assurances to support specific limits on immigration and the number of refugees that Germany would accept in future.

“There is an open flank on our right and we have to close this flank.”

Horst Seehofer, Bavarian premier and head of the CSU

The loss of support has ratcheted up tensions between the once close sister parties. The antagonism even forced a CSU spokesman to deny reports that the CSU had discussed ending its cooperation with Mrs. Merkel’s CDU, something inconceivable only a few years ago.

The Christian Democrats lost 1.6 million votes in the election on Sunday, compared with its results in the 2013 election, and the CSU received 400,000 fewer votes than in the last election, becoming the election’s biggest loser in percentage terms – it’s worst result since 1949. Even the tough-talking interior minister of Bavaria, Joachim Herrmann, who was the CSU’s top candidate, didn’t win a seat in parliament.

The CSU is not only concerned with its standing nationally. There are state elections in Bavaria next year and the rise of the AfD and the popularity of the pro-business Free Democrats could steal away the CSU’s absolute majority in the state parliament, which would be a real political blow for Mr. Seehofer.

The surprise success of the AfD was particuarly painful for the CSU in its home base of Bavaria, where it has always been the conservative standard bearer, especially under the stalwart leadership of Franz Josef Strauss, who headed the CSU from 1961 until his death in 1988. But this time the CSU’s support fell more than 10 percent, while the AfD, which campaigned strongly against Mrs. Merkel’s acceptance of nearly 1 million refugees two years ago, gained more than 8 percent.

“There is an open flank on our right and we have to close this flank with a clear position and clear limits,” Horst Seehofer, the CSU’s leader, told his supporters. “I am here to tell you we will not make a bad compromise in our discussions in Berlin.”

Among the CSU’s biggest red lines entering those talks: Mr. Seehofer has said he will demand a hard cap on the number of refugees coming into Germany each year. Even if Ms. Merkel says she’s heard the voters’ concerns, that could be a tough red line for her to meet as she seeks a coalition deal with the Free Democrats and Greens. The latter in particular have demanded more leniency when it comes to immigration.

Mr. Seehofer has little choice but to stay tough. The AfD’s successes caused a revolt among his supporters, who questioned his ability to lead. The debacle may yet force him to surrender the party leadership, or at least anoint a younger successor. “As party chairman, Horst Seehofer was personally responsible for the historically catastrophic performance of the CSU,” said a resolution adopted by the party committee in the Bavarian town of Fürst. They charged that Mr. Seehofer’s repeated threats to end the coalition with the CDU had undermined his influence in Berlin. “We have to determine with the CDU what we stand for,” said CSU parliamentary deputy Angelika Niebler. “The voters no longer believe we can get anything done in Berlin.”

The CSU’s vice chairman, Manfred Weber, told journalists that the CSU must deal with the changed circumstances among the voting population. He noted that the CSU actually lost more seats to the pro-business Free Democratic Party than to the AfD. “We must not forget the middle class, employers and people who voted for the FDP,” Mr. Weber said. “Its not only about the AfD.”

Daniel Delhaes is a poliltical correspondent for Handelsblatt based in Berlin. Charles Wallace is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in New York. To contact the authors: delhaes@handelsblatt.com and c.wallace@extern.handelsblatt.com

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