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Why Bavaria's CSU is Angela Merkel’s closest ally - and most dangerous foe

53043091 CSU Seehofer Merkel DPA
Horst Seehofer and Angela Merkel may be in an alliance, but they haven't always gotten along. Source: dpa

At the height of the refugee crisis, in November 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Munich, the capital of Bavaria, as guest of honor at a party gathering of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU). Ms. Merkel is the boss of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), and it has long been de rigueur for the two “sister parties” to visit each other, for they are officially allies and form a united group in the Bundestag. Her job is usually to offer up a few niceties, and then to receive flowers and exit, leaving the CSU delegates to do their thing. That is not what happened on this day.

After Ms. Merkel spoke, Horst Seehofer, the premier of Bavaria and boss of the CSU, joined her on stage, not letting her exit as planned. Mr. Seehofer is about 30cm taller than the chancellor and has a sonorous voice with which he rolls his Rs in a Bavarian accent that plays well in the beer halls where the CSU likes to campaign. Addressing the chancellor with the informal ‘du’, he thanked her — and then proceed to attack her open-door refugee policy. His verbal onslaught continued for nearly 15 minutes, broken only by the applause of the assembled CSU delegates. Ms. Merkel, usually in command of her body language, folded her arms over her abdomen as though protecting her innards from the blows. It was the most awkward and painful dressing-down of her career. For weeks there was talk about a coup that would eject Ms. Merkel from office.

This moment – combining the superficial intimacy of ‘du’ with fiercely adversarial tension – captures the whole fraught relationship between CDU and CSU that has reigned since the Second World War. Basques, Catalans, Scots, Quebecois and others may have parties representing them in a national government. But no party plays quite the role that the CSU does in Bavarian and German politics – for a rough idea, pretend that Texas had its own, independent branch of the Republican Party. This special position will make the CSU a crucial factor in the coalition negotiations following Germany’s federal election on September 24th.

Franz Josef Strauß und Konrad Adenauer
Franz Josef Strauss, the Christian Social Union's long-time leader, with West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. Source: DPA

Like the CDU in the rest of western Germany after the Second World War, the CSU began as a new grouping that absorbed Catholic and Protestant parties of the Weimar era (hence “union”), as well as other political movements ranging from Catholic socialism to patriotic conservatism. But Bavaria has a long tradition of independence (the state has never officially ratified postwar Germany’s constitution), and the CSU adopted this. Instead of joining the expanding CDU, it struck an arrangement that has held since West Germany’s first post-war election in 1949: The CDU stays out of Bavaria, and the CSU stays out of the rest of the country.

When it comes to national elections, however, the two Christian Union parties field a joint candidate for chancellor. Only two candidates have been from the CSU – Franz Josef Strauss in 1980, and Edmund Stoiber in 2002 – and both lost. But at home in Bavaria, the CSU has ruled continuously since 1957. And with much success: from an agrarian backwater, Bavaria has risen with a cheerful slogan of “laptops and lederhosen” to become one of Germany’s richest regions.

At the national level, however, the CSU’s alliance with the CDU has repeatedly teetered on the brink. The CSU threatened to build its own national force in 1976, but was brought back into line with a promise, written into the pact, of “equal footing” with the CDU. Amidst the political jostling after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the CSU backed the emergence of a rival party, the Democratic Social Union, in the former East Germany, but this soon failed too. For its part, the CDU has repeatedly goaded the CSU by threatening to set up a regional branch in Bavaria.

Horst Seehofer has headed the CSU and been State premier of Bavaria since 2008. DPA
Bavaria's motto is "laptops and lederhosen," as displayed here by the Christian Social Union's long-time leader, Edmund Stoiber. AP
Compared with Germany's other states, Bavaria saw the most refugees crossing its borders two years ago fleeing war and poverty. Chancellor Merkel's open-door policy lead to a lasting disagreement over how best to handle the crisis and whether to cap the number of asylum seekers in the country. DPA
regional train wuerzburg source dpa
In Bavaria, a series of four attacks in close succession in summer 2016 fueled fears of terror. DPA
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Bavarian state premier Horst Seehofer during a meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia, February 3, 2016. Bavarian state premier Horst Seehofer on January 31 defended his planned visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow against warnings it could undermine German Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policy. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS.
But other topics have caused trouble between Ms. Merkel and Mr. Seehofer too, such as his meeting in 2016 with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Ukraine – without the chancellor. Reuters
"There must never be a democratically legitimated party to the right of the CSU,” said leader Franz Josef Strauß; but with the Alternative for Germany, things are changing. DPA

The CSU is generally to the right of the CDU. It is a stalwart defender of traditional families and Christian values. And it often dabbles in populist rhetoric – most recently in speaking out against uncontrolled immigration and terrorism, and depicting Islam as a threat to Western society. Its voters tend to be older and less well educated, but also wealthier and more patriotic than average Germans, according to YouGov, a pollster.

Part of the CSU’s mission and identity has also been to prevent the rise in postwar Germany of another extreme-right movement reminiscent of the Nazis. As Mr. Strauss famously put it: “There must never be a democratically legitimated party to the right of the CSU.” This task has become harder since 2013, when the Alternative for Germany (AfD) was born, a new populist and anti-immigrant and anti-EU party. This is why Mr. Seehofer and his CSU have stepped up the populist rhetoric. He has even praised Donald Trump and met with Hungary’s proudly “illiberal” Viktor Orban.

These right-ward shifts have put Ms. Merkel, a centrist pragmatist, in quite a bind. In theory, the two parties could agree to disagree and go their separate ways, but since neither side has been willing to exercise that nuclear option, the Bavarian CSU sometimes wields a veto over national policy. It can also push ideas that virtually the entire rest of Germany considers silly. In the current legislature, the CSU insisted on planning a complicated road-toll system that would target only foreigners, mainly because Bavarians are annoyed about paying toll on Austrian highways whereas Austrians (and all others) drive free on the Bavarian side of the border. (Austria and other countries are suing under EU law.)

The most substantive split between CDU and CSU today concerns refugees. Since 2015, Mr. Seehofer has been insisting on a fixed upper limit of 200,000 refugees per year, whereas Ms. Merkel has rejected such a limit on constitutional and moral grounds. Fearing that the fight would cost them the election, Mr. Seehofer and Ms. Merkel have put aside this controversy for the time being, but it will resurface during coalition negotiations. So will the CSU’s dislike for the Greens, who are among the coalition partners Ms. Merkel may consider. Expect the CSU to smile like a happy sister until September 24th – and then to bare its Bavarian teeth.

Christopher Cermak is an editor for Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author: cermak@handelsblatt.com

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