Merkel’s Bavar­ian al­lies pay­ing a price for shift to right

The Chris­tian So­cial Union — long the Ger­man re­gion’s dom­i­nant force — could see dra­matic losses in state elec­tions on Sun­day


würzburg, ger­many — Like many Bavar­i­ans, Ru­dolf Trunk never had to think very hard about whom to sup­port when it came time to choose lead­ers of Ger­many’s south­ern pow­er­house.

The cen­ter-right Chris­tian So­cial Union (CSU) was syn­ony­mous with Bavar­ian iden­tity — lover of leder­ho­sen, pro-in­dus­try, de­vot­edly Catholic — and Trunk, a square-jawed busi­ness lob­by­ist, fit right in.

Not this year. When the party came to this uni­ver­sity city framed by cas­cad­ing vine­yards one evening this week to whip up sup­port ahead of cru­cial elec­tions, Trunk was across town, cheer­ing at a rally for the Greens.

“The CSU has done a lot of won­der­ful things for Bavaria,” said Trunk, a re­cent re­tiree who brought a dash of tweed re­fine­ment to a more home­spun af­fair in Würzburg’s cen­tral mar­ket. “But they tried to be like the far right, and that was the wrong way. I think it’s time for a change af­ter 60 years.”

It’s a com­mon re­frain in Bavaria this Oc­to­ber, one that re­flects what is widely seen — even by CSU in­sid­ers — as a disas­trous mis­cal­cu­la­tion by a once sure­footed party ahead of a Sun­day vote for the state’s par­lia­ment.

Faced with an in­sur­gent chal­lenge on its far right from the Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many party (AfD), the CSU dra­mat­i­cally broke with its more-mod­er­ate sis­ter party, Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel’s Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union, and sought to mimic the new­comer’s hard-line rhetoric on im­mi­gra­tion. At sev­eral points this year, the rup­ture nearly col­lapsed Ger­many’s na­tional gov­ern­ment.

But the gam­bit failed to re­claim way­ward con­ser­va­tives, while cen­trists and lib­er­als who had once backed the big-tent CSU split for more-pro­gres­sive al­ter­na­tives, es­pe­cially the Greens.

The flop il­lus­trates the lim­its for Europe’s tra­di­tional cen­trist par­ties of at­tempt­ing to co-opt the con­ti­nent’s pop­ulist wave.

In some coun­tries, in­clud­ing the Nether­lands and Aus­tria, cen­ter-right lead­ers have adopted the far right’s rhetoric and man­aged to keep or gain power. But their moves have not yielded any­thing close to a ma­jor­ity, and they have needed part­ners — the far right, in Aus­tria’s case — in or­der to gov­ern.

Mean­while, the shift of es­tab­lish­ment par­ties to­ward tougher po­si­tions on im­mi­gra­tion has not stopped the far right’s vote share from con­tin­u­ing to rise con­ti­nent-wide. And as Bavaria shows, there is peril in aban­don­ing the cen­ter ground.

“Vot­ers in the CSU aren’t as far to the right as the peo­ple at the top of the party thought they were,” said Christoph Mo­hamad-Klotzbach, who teaches po­lit­i­cal science at the Uni­ver­sity of Würzburg. “And now the left and the cen­ter of so­ci­ety are be­ing mo­bi­lized against them.”

The con­se­quences for the CSU are likely to be se­vere. The party has gov­erned Bavaria for 61 straight years, an ex­tra­or­di­nary record of po­lit­i­cal dom­i­nance. No one ex­pects that streak to end fol­low­ing Sun­day’s vote, when the CSU is widely pre­dicted to come out on top. But vic­tory has rarely looked more like de­feat.

In­stead of the thump­ing tri­umph of previous elec­tions — when the CSU rou­tinely won half or more of all votes — the party is on course to claim just a third this year. A party that has rarely had to share power will need to make a deal with one or more ri­vals to gov­ern the re­gion.

The hum­bling of the CSU fol­lows a pat­tern in Europe of po­lit­i­cal frag­men­ta­tion. The party’s Bavar­ian dy­nasty is in­creas­ingly an anachro­nism on a con­ti­nent where po­lit­i­cal power is rapidly shift­ing away from the tra­di­tion­ally dom­i­nant cen­trist post­war par­ties and to­ward an ever-grow­ing ros­ter of niche move­ments once rel­e­gated to the fringe, ei­ther left or right.

The CSU has long prided it­self on be­ing a “peo­ple’s party” — a broad-based move­ment that es­chews hard-line ide­ol­ogy or sin­gle-is­sue cru­sades in fa­vor of rea­soned com­pro­mise and prac­ti­cal solutions. It’s a for­mula that has worked for gen­er­a­tions, keep­ing ev­ery­one from high­fly­ing BMW ex­ec­u­tives to Alpine farm­ers to Mu­nich shop­keep­ers hap­pily in the fold.

It has also, party lead­ers like to boast, made Bavaria a ver­i­ta­ble utopia on earth, with ul­tralow unem­ploy­ment, bal­anced gov­ern­ment bud­gets and neg­li­gi­ble crime rates.

But the 2015 refugee cri­sis posed a po­lit­i­cal prob­lem that has vexed the party ever since. When Merkel opened the door to more than a mil­lion asy­lum seek­ers — and most of them trav­eled through Bavaria — CSU leader Horst See­hofer ve­he­mently protested.

Now Ger­many’s in­te­rior min­is­ter in ad­di­tion to be­ing the CSU’s leader, See­hofer has pushed for more-strin­gent im­mi­gra­tion con­trols this year, and has at times openly de­fied Merkel.

The con­flict has left the na­tional gov­ern­ment par­a­lyzed, lost in in­ternecine feud­ing. But in his stare-downs with Merkel, See­hofer has been un­will­ing to make the ul­ti­mate break away from the un­usual mar­riage with Merkel’s party, un­der which the CSU cam­paigns only in Bavaria, the CDU com­petes ev­ery­where else and the two form a pact at the fed­eral level.

His strat­egy has failed to sat­isfy ei­ther side of the po­lar­iz­ing refugee de­bate.

“Parts of the voter base are say­ing, ‘Why can’t we do more? We’re such a rich coun­try.’ And then there are those peo­ple say­ing, ‘It can’t con­tinue like this. We need an up­per limit. We’re maxed out,’ ” said Oliver Jörg, a CSU mem­ber of the Bavar­ian par­lia­ment rep­re­sent­ing Würzburg. “For us, it’s a chal­leng­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.”

And some of the in­flam­ma­tory rhetoric com­ing from party lead­ers — es­pe­cially See­hofer — hasn’t helped, Jörg said.

In March, See­hofer said that “Is­lam doesn’t be­long to Ger­many” — an as­ser­tion that Merkel quickly re­jected. In July, he jovially cel­e­brated the de­por­ta­tion of 69 failed Afghan asy­lum seek­ers on his 69th birthday, then de­flected blame when one of the men — who had lived in Ger­many for eight years, since he was a teenager — com­mit­ted sui­cide upon ar­rival in Kabul.

“We don’t need rhetoric like that from our party leader,” Jörg said.

The party’s other dom­i­nant fig­ure, and See­hofer’s chief ri­val within the CSU, seems to agree.

In an hour-plus speech here be­fore a crowd of around 400 on Tues­day night, Bavar­ian state premier Markus Söder con­fined talk of im­mi­gra­tion to a few min­utes to­ward the end, and fo­cused in­stead on plead­ing with vot­ers to stick with a party that has brought them wealth and se­cu­rity.

“Some call them­selves poor and sexy,” said Söder, jab­bing at Ger­many’s once fa­mously gritty cap­i­tal, Ber­lin. “We in Bavaria are strong and sta­ble.”

When he did address im­mi­gra­tion, he did so care­fully, call­ing for bor­der con­trols while thank­ing those who had vol­un­teered to help refugees and “showed off our best selves.”

But the softer ap­proach is a rel­a­tively new turn for Söder, and calls within the party are al­ready ris­ing for ei­ther him or See­hofer — or per­haps both — to step down af­ter the vote.

As the CSU feuds, other par­ties have glee­fully seized the ad­van­tage.

The AfD barely ex­isted the last time Bavaria voted, in 2013. This time, polls show the party on course to en­ter the state par­lia­ment with about 12 per­cent of the vote, roughly equal to what it won in the na­tional elec­tion last fall.

“The CSU’s strat­egy is to say to the peo­ple, ‘We’re on your side on im­mi­gra­tion. You don’t need to vote for the AfD,’” said Richard Graup­ner, the AfD’s can­di­date in Sch­we­in­furt, an in­dus­trial city north of the more af­flu­ent Würzburg. “But peo­ple don’t believe it any­more. They know the CSU doesn’t change any­thing.”

On the other end of the spec­trum, the Greens have surged into sec­ond place, with a pro­jected 18 per­cent, by tak­ing vot­ers from both the CSU and the cen­ter-left So­cial Democrats, who have been in free fall na­tion­wide.

At a small Greens rally in Sch­we­in­furt, party leader An­nalena Baer­bock called for ur­gent ac­tion on cli­mate change to pro­tect melt­ing Alpine glaciers, greater fund­ing to as­sist abused women and a more hu­mane ap­proach to refugees.

The elec­tion, she said in an in­ter­view af­ter ac­cept­ing a 12pack of dark lo­cal beer as a thank-you from her hosts, could ce­ment the Green Party’s place at the heart of Ger­man pol­i­tics.

“It’s a turn­ing point,” she said. “Ev­ery­one is look­ing to Bavaria.”

For long­time lo­cal ac­tivists, that’s as­ton­ish­ing. When vol­un­teers first started putting up Green Party posters in Bavaria decades ago, said Martin Heilig, the re­gion’s con­ser­va­tive vot­ers would eye them war­ily, “look­ing to see if you put a bomb there as well.”

But the party has moved on from its rad­i­cal roots — and Bavaria has changed, too. At the party’s rally in Würzburg, at­ten­dees skipped the usual cam­paign fare of sausages and sauer­kraut in fa­vor of ve­gan falafels dressed in co­conut and gin­ger.

“If we have a vic­tory, it’s a sym­bol for all other coun­tries,” said Heilig, the party’s lo­cal chair. “We want to be a friendly coun­try, an open Ger­many. We have the feel­ing that’s what peo­ple want, too.”


Anas­ta­sia Treg­ulova in a beer hall at this year’s Ok­to­ber­fest in Mu­nich. Al­though the cen­ter-right Chris­tian So­cial Union has gov­erned Bavaria for 61 straight years, the party’s hard-line stance on im­mi­gra­tion has pushed some vot­ers away and to the left.


State premier Markus Söder at a rally this week in Würzburg. The Chris­tian So­cial Union politi­cian pleaded with vot­ers to stick with a party that has brought them wealth and se­cu­rity.


An­nalena Baer­bock, co-leader of the Green Party, at­tends an event this week in Sch­we­in­furt. She called for ac­tion on cli­mate change and a more hu­mane ap­proach to refugees.

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