For Horst Seehofer, the Federal Republic of Germany is a miniature landscape in which a model train makes its rounds. When Chancellor Angela Merkel isn’t nice to him, a tiny Merkel figure is placed on the windowsill as punishment.
Much has been written about the toy train that belongs to the current premier of the southern state of Bavaria and leader of the state’s conservative Christian Social Union, the sister party to Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Ever since a television crew was invited into his den in mid-May, the world view and political conception of the CSU chairman can be read in terms of trains, switch points and tiny stations.
For years now, Mr. Seehofer has been reproducing his life down in his cellar. Down there the federal government is still based in Bonn, the capital of former West Germany. When the Bavarian leader arrives there, he is met by a model chancellor and vice-chancellor. This is a simple world in which the CSU counts for something and Mr. Seehofer controls everything.
Someone like Mr. Seehofer has survived too many crises to let his political legacy be destroyed by a chancellor who suddenly discovered her inner conviction in the refugee crisis.
This idyll came to an abrupt end a year ago. On September 4, 2015, Ms. Merkel opened Germany’s borders to refugees coming from Hungary without informing Mr. Seehofer beforehand, let alone securing his agreement. Ms. Merkel claims she was unable to reach Mr. Seehofer on what in retrospect has proved to be a historic day. Even now, Mr. Seehofer feels betrayed. The wound still stings.
Ms. Merkel’s decision had far-reaching consequences for Bavaria which, in the subsequent months, had to deal each day with the arrival of thousands of refugees. For a long time, it looked as though Mr. Seehoffer had lost control of things, as if his customary world were slipping away. The chancellor should have realized that he was not likely to accept this relegation.
A year later, it looks as if Ms. Merkel has finally met an opponent who is her equal with regard to awareness of power and tactical finesse. Friedrich Merz, Roland Koch, Jürgen Röttgen: The list is long of naysayers within the conservative camp. These critics first underestimated Ms. Merkel and were then disposed of by her. This isn’t working with Mr. Seehofer. It means the 67-year-old has suddenly become a key figure with a significant voice in Ms. Merkel’s political future. But in reality, not in a toy train world.
To stick with the metaphor: Mr. Seehofer has frequently been sidelined. But up to now, he has always found a way back to the main track. During the 2005 controversy about income-independent health insurance favored by Ms. Merkel, Mr. Seehofer, at that time deputy chairman of the joint CDU-CSU parliamentary group, almost resigned from politics in protest.
He remained, and the proposal was abandoned. Then severe heart problems took him out of the running for a while. Later a romantic entanglement further thwarted his political ambitions.
Someone like Mr. Seehofer has survived too many crises to let his political legacy be destroyed by a chancellor who suddenly discovered her inner conviction in the refugee crisis. So he is dealing one blow after another to her. Each of his attacks from Munich, the capital of Bavaria, cracks the pedestal on which Ms. Merkel stands.
He responded to her “We can do this” with “not by any stretch of the imagination.” He delivered a lecture after Ms. Merkel’s recent election loss in her home state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania saying his “repeated calls for a change of course” in refugee policy were not heeded, and the outcome was a “disastrous” electoral result.
Intentionally or unintentionally, Mr. Seehofer is visibly content with his oppositional role even while inside the government. He could have uttered what longtime CSU chairman and Bavarian premier Franz Josef Strauss once wrote for everyone in the party’s membership book: “Look at the people in the mouth, but don’t mouth the words they want to hear!”
In contrast, Mr. Seehofer in no way avoids open confrontation with Ms. Merkel. After recording a television interview, he worked himself into a frenzy and told the astounded moderator in front of the camera: “You can broadcast all that” – making his outburst seem premeditated.
In this sense as well, Mr. Seehofer is a political pupil of the late Mr. Strauss and even today follows his model for success: deliberate provocation of the CSU’s sister party to the north, the larger CDU, in order to increase his own profile. Insults such as Mr. Strauss launched against the then-chairman of the CDU, Helmut Kohl (“He’ll never become chancellor. He’s utterly incompetent.”) are inconceivable today. But Mr. Strauss would have enjoyed seeing how in November 2015 Mr. Seehofer introduced Chancellor Merkel at the CSU party congress as if she were a schoolgirl.
Two years ago, Mr. Seehofer was still declaring his intention to achieve an absolute majority in the legislative elections together with Ms. Merkel. Today, he once again keeps her waiting, this time with regard to his support of her possible fourth candidacy for the chancellorship.
Despite all the folksy bluster, Mr. Seehofer enjoys playing the sphinx on this crucial issue, revealing to no one what he is really thinking. When he says regarding his relationship to Ms. Merkel that “we always talk,” it could mean everything or nothing. When he also smiles mischievously, it’s particularly unclear what he’s up to.
At home in Bavaria, Mr. Seehofer has been keeping the lid on three potential successors: the CSU’s Markus Söder, Ilse Aigner and Alexander Dobrindt, Germany’s federal transport minister. There are no other candidates. Apart from Mr. Dobrindt, the CSU ministers in Berlin are barely known.
What matters most to Mr. Seehofer is that with regard to major issues, he is heard in Berlin. At best, the head of the group of CSU parliamentarians, Gerda Hasselfeldt, has a voice in the German capital. But even with her mediatory inclinations, Ms. Hasselfeldt can’t bridge the current gap between Ms. Merkel and Mr. Seehofer.
The two politicians don’t really fit each other. Ms. Merkel’s father was a pastor in eastern Germany. Mr. Seehofer is from a lower middle-class background. Ms. Merkel is an academic with a doctorate in physics. Mr. Seehofer is proud of being one of the few German politicians to have made it to the top without having earned the Abitur high school certificate.
Just as divergent are the pasts of the woman from the north and the man from the south, so do their approaches to politics differ.
Mr. Seehofer prides himself on proximity to the people. For him, this means beer tents and the regulars’ pub table just as much as advisory councils staffed with professors.
Ms. Merkel, on the other hand, employs entire senior staffs to evaluate surveys. Psychologists are tasked with telling her what the average citizen thinks.
At heart, Mr. Seehofer has remained one of these citizens. This explains why at the beginning of this week in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, Mr. Seehofer once again proclaimed that people don’t want “these Berlin politics.” He made the statement although his CSU has been part of the ruling federal government coalition for the past 11 years.
Part of opposing his own head of government involves the question as to who actually stopped the influx of refugees. For Mr. Seehofer, it wasn’t Ms. Merkel who accomplished this, but the neighboring countries who closed down the refugees’ Balkan route north.
What does Mr. Seehofer intend to achieve with this whittling away of Ms. Merkel’s successes? The fact is that he has no one to suggest as a replacement for Ms. Merkel. He considers neither Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen nor Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière to be real alternatives as candidates for the chancellorship in the 2017 legislative elections.
So why does Mr. Seehofer issue such harsh ultimatums about tougher measures regarding refugees and refuses to back down from his call for an upper limit on the asylum seekers? And with each new attack, he further weakens the ruling coalition to which his party is fated to belong?
In fact, it’s all about Mr. Seehofer’s determination to retain the CSU’s dominant position in Bavaria.
Mr. Seehofer heeds the warning of Mr. Strauss that a democratic party should never be allowed to establish itself to the right of the CSU. At least in Bavaria, Mr. Seehofer wants to keep the extreme right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party small at any price. Because if the AfD enters the Bavarian parliament after the state elections there in 2018, that could endanger the CSU’s absolute majority in the state.
Standing or falling with the absolute majority is the party’s very justification for existence – and Mr. Seehofer’s legacy. There is no way he wants to go down in history as the premier and party chairman who, after the ill-fated duo of Günther Beckstein and Erwin Huber, lost the CSU’s absolute majority for a second time.
The latest polling shows that Mr. Seehofer’s tactics are working. The CSU is moving closer to achieving that absolute majority. Up to now, he has been able to keep the AfD at bay in Bavaria. In terms of power politics, SPD, the Green Party and other groups no longer play a significant role in the state.
There is speculation in Berlin and Munich that Mr. Seehofer could run as the top CSU candidate in the 2017 federal legislative elections. As number one on the Bavarian list of candidates, he would be seen on posters throughout Bavaria as the corrective to Ms. Merkel’s refugee policies. After the election, would he enter a possible new Merkel cabinet or stay on as premier in Munich? No one in the CSU leadership wants to make a prediction.
The fact is that Mr. Seehofer has another power struggle in Munich. He would dearly like to prevent his finance minister Mr. Söder from becoming the new Bavarian premier. Even today, Mr. Seehofer suspects his rival of having passed on information to the media about his ex-marital affair and the birth of a daughter in 2007. Mr. Seehofer has expressed public indignation about Mr. Söder’s “dirty tricks.”
But Mr. Söder is at least as savvy as his boss. If Mr. Seehofer goes to Berlin in 2017, he will scarcely be able to keep Mr. Söder from becoming the Bavarian leader back in Munich. But if Mr. Seehofer remains in Munich, he can keep Mr. Söder at a distance. After all, Mr. Seehofer has only half-heartedly excluded another term as state premier.
In any case, Mr. Seehofer will continue to demand a change of course in Berlin. On Sunday, he will meet Ms. Merkel and the SPD leader and vice chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, at the chancellery. In the run-up, Mr. Seehofer has declared: “We need clear orientation regarding contents: taxes, domestic security, pensions, immigration. At the latest in September or October, there must be clarification.” He canceled a visit to Russia planned for early October because of “important upcoming political decisions.”
The CSU leadership will also meet this weekend. An experienced CSU figure is sure that the outcome of the internal party debate is already clear in Mr. Seehofer’s mind. His judgment of Ms. Merkel’s refugee policies was written in stone long ago.
Or as Mr. Seehofer himself put it in reference to his model train: “In periods of relaxation between the chancellor and myself, she is the boss of operations. In times of difficulty – onto the windowsill.”
Thomas Sigmund is Handelsblatt’s Berlin bureau chief. To reach the author: firstname.lastname@example.org