German conservatives

Söder up, Seehofer down, as Bavaria’s CSU rallies around its next leader

Maibock-Anstich im Hofbräuhaus
Söder left, Seehofer right. Bad blood. Good beer. Source: Picture Alliance

Markus Söder, Bavaria’s finance minister, loathes his boss, Horst Seehofer, the state’s premier and leader of its ruling party, the Christian Social Union. And the feeling is mutual. For years, their enmity has roiled the CSU, and thus by extension the whole conservative bloc led by Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. So Mr. Seehofer needed all his self-control today, December 4, as he had to concede defeat to his rival.

That was when, following weeks of speculation about his future, Mr. Seehofer confirmed that he will step down as Bavaria’s premier early next year, although he hopes to remain chairman of the CSU. Whether he will remains to be seen. This retreat came after CSU lawmakers in the Bavarian state parliament in Munich unanimously voted in favor of Mr. Söder as their pick for party nominee ahead of the state election in the fall of next year. The vote is not binding, but a powerful signal ahead of the party congress on December 15-16 in Nuremberg — Mr. Söder’s home town — where the party nominee will officially be anointed.

The animosity between Bavaria’s two silverbacks dates back at least ten years, to revelations in Germany’s tabloid newspapers that Mr. Seehofer, who at the time was a minister in Chancellor Merkel’s first federal cabinet in Berlin, was having an extramarital affair with a 33-year-old woman, who was expecting his child. For Mr. Seehofer, who was presenting himself as a family man from a staunchly conservative party and state, this was embarrassing. Mr. Seehofer was allegedly convinced that it had been Mr. Söder who had spilled the beans. Mr. Söder still denies this. But enemies they would be, from that point on.

“Nothing unites the CSU so much as standing up to the CDU.”

Markus Söder, CSU politician and Bavarian state finance minister

Now, however, it is Mr. Söder’s star that is rising, while Mr. Seehofer’s is setting. And this power shift will have repercussions for the attempts by Ms. Merkel in Berlin to form a new governing coalition, and for German policy going forward. That is because the CSU is traditionally the more conservative arm of the center-right CDU-CSU bloc. Since the refugee crisis of 2015, Mr. Seehofer has been one of Ms. Merkel’s fiercest critics over migration policy. With Mr. Söder ascendant, the CSU is likely to turn even harder to the right.

“Nothing unites the CSU so much as standing up to the CDU,” Mr. Söder said in an interview back in 1997, when he himself was still a journalist for a regional Bavarian broadcaster and, at 30, the head of the CSU’s youth organization. Twenty years on, that is still his motto. On the subject of refugees, Mr. Söder has been even more hawkish than Mr. Seehofer. At one point he suggested securing the German-Austrian border, where most refugees in late 2015 were entering Germany, with a fence and patrols. He also called for changing Germany’s liberal constitution to make it less welcoming of refugees. None other than Mr. Seehofer had to rebuke him.

01 Bavaria’s outsized importance in Germany-01

Mr. Söder is conservative on other matters as well, often verging on populist. As Bavaria’s state finance minister, he spearheaded a revolt of Germany’s rich states — led by Bavaria, of course — against the system of fiscal transfers from wealthy to poorer regions. And last year, Mr. Söder initiated a Bavarian lawsuit against Volkswagen, demanding compensation for depreciated pensions for Bavarian civil servants caused indirectly by the Dieselgate emissions scandal. At the height of the Greek debt crisis two-and-a-half years ago, he suggested that Greece should exit the euro zone, referring to “Grexit” as “the fairest and most honest way” out of the crisis.

On social issues, too, Mr. Söder, a practicing Lutheran, is at least as conservative as his peers within the overwhelmingly Catholic CSU. “One thing is clear for the CSU: Crucifixes belong in classrooms, headscarves don’t,” he told a German magazine a few years ago. He has called for the Bavarian anthem “to be learnt and sung.”

A married father of two, Mr. Söder is a steadfast advocate of traditional family values. That includes, as it does for Mr. Seehofer, a telling asterisk: Mr. Söder fathered a daughter with his then-girlfriend in 1998, before marrying the daughter of a rich entrepreneur from his native Nuremberg one year later. “I can’t bear to hear the CSU babbling on about family policy,” the ex-girlfriend, identified in German media as Ulrike B., told a women’s magazine in 2010. “Single moms who work to support themselves just don’t exist for the CSU,” she fumed, and went on to give an account of her own struggles as a single parent. The headline above her tale: “Markus Söder — The CSU politician and his two families.”

Markus Söder (pictured right) is famous in Bavaria for his penchant for eccentric costumes. The wealthy state’s finance minister is a regular guest at the annual Fastnacht in Franken party, a celebrity-studded Carnival highlight in northern Bavaria that’s broadcast live all over the state. Source: DPA
Year after year, Mr. Söder has turned up in nifty likenesses of Homer Simpson, Shrek or Gandalf the Grey, while the less flamboyant state premier, Horst Seehofer, prefers to dress up just as his old self. Source: DPA
Mr. Söder (pictured with his wife Karin Baumüller-Söder) has also impersonated real-life figures such as Marilyn Monroe or Mahatma Gandhi – complete with blackface, which is not frowned upon in the German province. Source: Picture Alliance
But this fall, Mr. Söder, a senior figure in Bavaria's Christian Social Union, set his sights on a mantle he hopes he will keep for a lot longer than just one beer-fueled Carnival night. Source: DPA
After a decade biding his time in the Bavarian state cabinet, the CSU politician will replace Horst Seehofer as Bavaria’s state premier in early 2018. Source: DPA
Mr. Söder, a practicing Lutheran, is at least as conservative as his peers within his overwhelmingly Catholic party. A few years ago, he told Der Spiegel, “One thing is clear for the CSU: Crucifixes belong in classrooms, headscarves don’t.” Source: Nicolas Armer/DPA
A former journalist for Bavarian regional broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk, Mr. Söder was 27 when he was elected as a lawmaker for the CSU in the Bavarian state parliament in 1994. Source: Peter Kneffel/DPA
He has been a minister in the Bavarian state cabinet for ten years. First, he was in charge of federal and European affairs, then from 2008 to 2011 he was Bavaria's environment and health minister. Since then, he served as the wealthy state's finance minister. Source: Felix Hörhager/DPA
Outgoing state premier Horst Seehofer has presided over both the CSU and Bavaria since 2008 and was hoping to run for a third term in state elections next fall. He is a key ally to Angela Merkel but their relationship has often been fraught. Source: DPA
After last September’s electoral debacle, Mr. Seehofer faced calls to step down as horrified party members realized the CSU might very well lose the absolute majority it currently enjoys in the state parliament. State interior minister Joachim Herrmann (right) threw his hat into the ring to succeed him. Source: Matthias Balk/DPA
Bavarian vice-president and economics minister Ilse Aigner, one of the few influential women within the CSU, also coveted Mr. Seehofer’s job. But Mr. Söder had many more backers among the party and was able to outmaneuver all his rivals. Source: Peter Kneffel/DPA
One thing looks very certain: Mr. Söder will wear another silly outfit at Carnival next year. But whether he leads the CSU to another victory in the Bavarian state election next fall remains to be seen. Source: DPA

Mr. Söder has not wholly removed his rival yet. Mr. Seehofer, aged 68, may yet cling for a while longer to his party posts. He could also get a job as a minister in an upcoming federal cabinet under Ms. Merkel. Perhaps Mr. Söder might even help that along, just to get Mr. Seehofer out of Munich.

Within a year, moreover, Mr. Söder has to take another hurdle, the Bavarian regional election. The CSU has governed Bavaria for six decades without interruption, often with an absolute majority in the state parliament. Its dominance in its home state is indeed part of its identity. That’s why its miserable (in relative terms) showing on September 24, with only 38.8 percent of the vote — an all-time low since the 1950s — rang alarm bells and sounded the beginning of the end for Mr. Seehofer. The party now has less than a year to win its supporters back. If it doesn’t, the blame next time will fall on Markus Söder.

Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To reach the author:

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