Interior minister

Seehofer, the towering Bavarian who could topple Merkel's government

Politischer Aschermittwoch – CSU
Horst Seehofer: misunderstood victim of fake news. Source: DPA

His tie was askew and his suit a little crumpled. But that didn’t seem to bother Horst Seehofer, as he faced the media in Berlin recently. The head of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian “sister party” to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, appeared relaxed, a smile on his lips, a hand in one pocket.

Staying (or seeming) relaxed is the name of the game for Mr. Seehofer, who is also the country’s minister of the interior. It is part of a persona he cultivates: That of an imposing man, 1.93 meters (6′ 4″) tall, slightly rumpled, folksy and close to the people, what with the model railroad in his basement and all. How could such a man be scheming to topple the German chancellor?

Those claiming he is doing exactly that are peddling “fake news,” said Mr. Seehofer, who’s had enough of it. The minister complained to journalists invited to his ministry about “a considerable series of artless and false reporting.” Fake news, he told them, isn’t only generated outside Germany: “We also produce it here.”

Don’t get me wrong

Mr. Seehofer talked about Germany’s current political crisis, stemming from a quarrel with his boss, Angela Merkel, over how to deal with migrants. He feels misunderstood and said he’s being unfairly attacked and criticized. Many claim he and his colleagues in Bavaria could potentially bring down Ms. Merkel’s government because of their own state elections in October.

The CSU, which is active only in Bavaria, has been the CDU’s junior partner ever since the two parties agreed, just after World War II, that Ms. Merkel’s party would never run for election in the southern state and the CSU nowhere else in Germany. That curious alliance has given the CSU an outsize influence on the country’s politics. In fact, whenever the CDU – which is more center-right – has a public feud with the CSU like the current one, analysts rush to suggest the coalition partners should split.

The Bavarians have long disagreed with the CDU’s relatively liberal migration policies. If the more conservative CSU ran candidates nationwide, they argue, voters might not be pushed toward extreme-right parties like the Alternative for Germany.

Not divisive by design

A widespread suspicion says that Mr. Seehofer has brought the country to the edge of crisis only to impress Bavarian voters with his tough stance on migrants, in order to get a better result in the Bavarian state election in October. Moi?, replies Mr. Seehofer. He pledges that he only wants what’s best for Germany. He’s not being divisive deliberately, but raising issues voters really want to discuss. He claims he only wants law and order.

Because Mr. Seehofer is so concerned about Germany’s political stability, he crafted a “master plan” for migration. Few details are known except that the proposal calls for turning back at the German border asylum seekers who are already registered in another country. That proposal flies in the face of European rules, according to Ms. Merkel, who wants it removed from the master plan. Mr. Seehofer has refused to do that and given Ms. Merkel until early July to come up with an EU-wide solution to the problem. If not, he appears willing to carry out his plan.

“More and more, our firm beliefs are being questioned,” Mr. Seehofer said. “People are worried about the future.”

May 24 2018 Munich Bavaria Germany A day after the 69th birthday of Germanys Grundgesetze Bi
So subtle. Source: Imago

But Mr. Seehofer’s blueprint for stability and the re-establishment of trust in the government after the migration crisis of 2015 seems to have backfired. His master plan, which he guards like a fire-breathing dragon sitting atop a chest of gold, is destabilizing the whole German government.

Ms. Merkel’s supporters say that it’s not just the carefully assembled coalition that’s at stake. If Germany closes its borders, then other European nations will follow. That, in turn, endangers the common market and heralds a return to nationalism, and a move away from the original principles behind the European Union.

Mr. Seehofer thinks that’s an overreaction. The situation, he said, is “serious but manageable.” He sees Ms. Merkel’s policies on asylum seekers from 2015 as a major mistake and now, as newly-minted minister of the interior and Heimat (homeland), he has the power to correct it. And while Ms. Merkel has the numbers on her side, Mr. Seehofer appears to have the voters’ emotions on his.

Germany is the safest it has been in 26 years, say federal statistics on crime. But it doesn’t feel that way to many, especially as they read the details of a 14-year-old local girl who was recently strangled after a presumed date in the woods with a 21-year-old Iraqi refugee went horribly wrong.

Exaggerating the numbers

The situation with asylum seekers on the border is under control, Ms. Merkel has said. She’s correct. The number of applications for asylum has halved and continues to fall month by month.

But none of that seems to matter. While the CSU’s popularity in Bavaria is not improving on the back of this scrap, recent polls of public opinion indicate that most Germans agree with the CSU in principle: They too believe immigration needs to be controlled. Never mind, that it’s already happening. And that’s why Mr. Seehofer’s pursuit of Ms. Merkel has been so successful.

Verleihung des Deutschen Computerspielpreises
Bavarian premier Markus Söder: So where's Horst? Source: DPA

It’s standard practice for Mr. Seehofer to get angry in Berlin – he wants to show Bavarians that he’s taking care of them. But usually, he drops the controversy before any lasting damage is done.

If it seems a little different different this time, it may be because Mr. Seehofer has somebody chasing him too. Every time he backs down in this fight, Markus Söder, who managed to wrest the Bavarian premiership away from him, pushes him back into the ring. Mr. Söder, who recently had crucifixes hung in all Bavarian government buildings, was quick to criticize the French agreement to take back any asylum seekers who had first registered there, and what may have been the first of Ms. Merkel’s proposed bilateral solutions to the EU’s immigration problem.

So how will Mr. Seehofer be remembered when this is all over? As a fearless advocate of law and order – or as a feckless gambler who tipped the country toward political extremism? The tragedy is that Mr. Seehofer has unleashed an escalating dynamic that he appears unable to manage. In trying to regain “control,” he has ended up with an almost complete loss of it.

Moritz Koch, a former Washington correspondent for Handelsblatt, now covers politics in Berlin. This story was adapted in English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: koch@handelsblatt.com

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