Horst Seehofer

The Bavarian Thorn in Angela Merkel's Side

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Horst Seehofer is the premier of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union. How he plays his political hand will influence developments in both Munich and Berlin leading up to the national election in autumn 2017.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Horst Seehofer, leader of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, is opposed to the open-arms refugee policies of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
    • The center-right Christian Democratic Union, its smaller Bavarian counterpart the CSU and the center-left Social Democrats make up Germany’s coalition government.
    • For the first time in 16 years, Ms. Merkel has not been invited to a CSU party convention.
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    Audio

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Angela Merkel and Horst Seehofer during last year's CSU party convention. Source: Sven Hoppe / DPA

As conservatives in the southern German state of Bavaria descended on Munich for an important party convention that began on Friday, the praise for Angela Merkel could hardly have been rosier.

No one is more suited to lead Germany than she is, rang this resounding praise, and: Ms. Merkel is doing everything right and should run for a fourth term.

Of course, that praise wasn’t coming from any members of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to the chancellor’s ruling Christian Democrats. Instead, it came from Winfried Kretschmann, the governor of the nearby state of Baden-Württemberg and a member of the Green Party.

It’s a sign of just how strained relations are between Ms. Merkel and her allies from Bavaria, when a member of the opposition speaks more favorably about her than they do.

Those relations have been tense ever since Ms. Merkel decided to open Germany’s doors to the legions of asylum seekers and refugees fleeing Syria, which led to a massive influx across Bavaria’s southern border – something that many political leaders in the state are still angry about today.

The acrimony has also led to an unprecedented situation whereby Horst Seehofer, the head of the CSU and premier of Bavaria, said he didn’t want to invite Ms. Merkel to the party convention – and Ms. Merkel saying she didn’t want to come.

“The CSU has always been a thorn in the side of the Union, albeit a productive one.”

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Governor of the western German state of Saarland

Some are worried the feud could hurt the chances of conservative candidates in next year’s elections. For others, like Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the governor of the western German state of Saarland, it’s all par for the course.

“The CSU has always been a thorn in the side of the Union, albeit a productive one. It’s not always pleasant, but it has always contributed to our success,” Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer told Handelsblatt in an interview.

Those successes were on display on Friday as well, as German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt – a CSU member – received kudos for reaching a compromise with the European Commission over a controversial German road toll, a major victory on one of the party’s signature proposals. The toll still needs to be ratified in Germany, but approval from Brussels is likely to arrive by the end of the month.

“The talks between the Federal Ministry of Transport and the European Commission are on the right track to finding a solution on the issue of road tolls,” a Commission spokeswoman told Handelsblatt. She said a final agreement was likely to be reached in November.

Mr. Dobrindt’s earlier suggestions had been welcomed at home but criticized abroad as being incompatible with E.U. law. He was hoping to impose road tolls in order to pay for highway repairs, while compensating German drivers through lower car taxes. E.U. law, however, forbids national laws from unfairly disadvantaging other countries’ citizens.

A breakthrough came when Mr. Dobrindt proposed reductions in car taxes that were not directly tied to the road tolls, but to cars’ emissions and fuel efficiency. According to the plan, some drivers would receive rebates exceeding the tolls, while owners of more gas-greedy vehicles would only be partially compensated for the toll.

The two sister parties are still bickering over Ms. Merkel's refugee policy decisions to this day.

Yet even if the highway tolls pad state coffers with an additional €500 million ($555 million) a year, money’s not what’s going to improve relations between Berlin and Munich. The discord between Ms. Merkel and Mr. Seehofer stretches all the way back to September 4, 2015, the day the chancellor decided to let thousands of refugees trapped in Hungary make their way to Germany unhindered.

Mr. Seehofer has openly complained that the chancellor never informed him of her intentions – or bothered to seek his blessing. Ms. Merkel, for her part, claims she was unable to reach the Bavarian governor that day.

The two sister parties are still bickering over Ms. Merkel’s refugee policy decisions to this day. Although both sides emphasize how hard they are working toward a common goal and to alleviate the tension between them, there were further reproaches for Ms. Merkel coming from Munich on Thursday.

The Bavarian finance minister, Markus Söder, reiterated his calls for an annual cap on the number of refugees allowed into Germany. While other leading CSU members have come out in favor of another term for Ms. Merkel, Mr. Söder has so far refused to do so.

But Mr. Söder isn’t not the only prominent CSU official who has kept quiet about endorsing Ms. Merkel. Mr. Seehofer has too, but his motives for doing so are largely egocentric – he still hasn’t plotted his own political course for the future.

He has suggested divvying up the duties of CSU party chief and premier of Bavaria between two people. (Mr. Seehofer currently holds both offices.) But it remains unclear if doing so would also force Mr. Seehofer to move to Berlin to represent his party’s interests, or whether he could convince one of his high-ranking CSU subordinates to do so. If he could pass the job of CSU chief onto someone else, Mr. Seehofer could keep his position as Bavarian premier for years to come.

“From my perspective, Seehofer has made an interesting proposal,” the former CSU leader Erwin Huber said, adding that combining both offices was enormously difficult.

Dorothee Bär, a junior transport minister in Berlin and also a CSU member, said she believed the party’s top candidate was obligated to move to Berlin.

“Not to move after the vote wouldn’t be received well with the voters,” she said.

The pressure is on for the CSU to end this internal party dispute and to usher in an era of detente with the CDU.

But not everyone in the party wants to see Mr. Seehofer leave Munich for the German capital. According to one prominent CSU member, who spoke to Handelsblatt anonymously, the offices of CSU chief and Bavarian premier should continue to be carried out by one person. The party’s top office could be managed perfectly well from Munich, he said. “And besides, there’s already a key role in Berlin – the head of the CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag,” referring to Gerda Hasselfeldt.

The pressure is on for the CSU to end this internal party dispute and to usher in an era of detente with the CDU. Though it might not matter either way. According to the latest polls, if the state election was next week, the CSU would only get 44 percent of the vote – washing away their majority in the Bavarian state parliament.

Thomas Sigmund is Handelsblatt’s bureau chief in Berlin. Martin Greive is a correspondent for Handelsblatt based in Berlin. Sebastian Beug reports for Handelsblatt from Berlin. To contact the authors: sigmund@handelsblatt.comgreive@handelsblatt.com

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