Leader’s per­son­al­ity clash with An­gela Merkel could cost CSU their grip on power in Bavaria

The Sunday Telegraph - - World news - By Justin Hug­gler in Kiefers­felden

There is lit­tle to mark the bor­der be­tween Ger­many and Aus­tria at Kiefers­felden be­sides a Eu­ro­pean Union flag and three bored Ger­man po­lice­men check­ing in­com­ing cars for mi­grants. But this may be where things started to un­ravel for An­gela Merkel’s Bavar­ian al­lies.

Bavaria votes to­day in re­gional elec­tions that will be the lat­est to shake the es­tab­lished or­der in Europe. Mrs Merkel’s re­gional sis­ter party has ruled Bavaria since 1957, but if the polls are right, the Chris­tian So­cial Union (CSU) faces a fight to hold on to power.

For once, the threat is not a pop­ulist re­volt. In­stead, the CSU ap­pears to have self-de­struc­ted. Horst See­hofer, the CSU leader, al­most tore Mrs Merkel’s govern­ment apart over the sum­mer. Ex­perts pre­dicted that a new wave of mi­grants would surge north from Italy to­wards Ger­many, and, fear­ing that would play into the hands of the na­tion­al­ist Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many party (AfD), Mr See­hofer de­manded the right to turn back mi­grants at the bor­der. If he didn’t get his way, he threat­ened to re­sign as in­te­rior min­is­ter, pull the CSU out of Mrs Merkel’s coali­tion and de­prive her of a ma­jor­ity in par­lia­ment.

But the new wave of mi­grants has not ma­te­ri­alised and in­stead of safe­guard­ing its vote, the CSU has plum­meted in the polls.

“This may be a Bavar­ian election, but the govern­ment par­ties are pay­ing the price for Ber­lin pol­i­tics,” says Markus Boy, a mu­nic­i­pal worker in the tourist town of Bad Ai­b­ling. “Peo­ple are tired of the in­fight­ing in Ber­lin.”

“Mi­grants were a big is­sue in 2015, when there were a lot of them com­ing through,” says Irene Gru­ber, who is orig­i­nally from Scot­land but has lived in Kiefers­felden for 24 years af­ter mar­ry­ing a lo­cal man. “But it’s been quiet this year and it’s less of an is­sue.”

Hu­bert Utzmeier, in the nearby town of Freilass­ing, agrees. “In 2015 there were thou­sands of mi­grants on the bor­der here, and we couldn’t cope. But now ev­ery­thing’s un­der con­trol. In­te­gra­tion is the is­sue now, and in Bavaria in­te­gra­tion is easy: you just put on a pair of leder­ho­sen,” he jokes.

Mr See­hofer and Markus Söder, the CSU’s lo­cal leader and his arch-ri­val, have com­peted to take the hard­est line on mi­grants.

Mr Söder set up a new Bavar­ian Bor­der Po­lice force this year, and stirred con­tro­versy when he or­dered all pub­lic build­ings to dis­play a cross as a sign of “Bavar­ian cul­ture”.

There are still vot­ers for whom mi­gra­tion re­mains the key is­sue. But a fi­nal poll be­fore to­day’s vote had the CSU on 34 per cent, down 13 points from the last Bavar­ian election in 2013 – still in first place, but not enough for a ma­jor­ity. The main threat was not from the AfD, which was in fourth place on 10 per cent. In­stead the cen­tre-Left Green Party has surged to an un­likely sec­ond place with 19 per cent in a state that is usu­ally a by-word for Ger­man con­ser­vatism.

“The CSU’s hard line on mi­gra­tion seems to have proved coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. In­stead of win­ning back the vot­ers it lost to the AfD in re­cent years, it seems to be turn­ing off more mod­er­ate vot­ers,” says Pepijn Bergsen of the Econ­o­mist In­tel­li­gence Unit.

There is no mis­tak­ing the fer­vour of AfD vot­ers. Sup­port­ers pack a pub in the town of Rosen­heim to lis­ten to a cam­paign speech by Han­sjörg Müller, one of the party’s lo­cal MPs, who was elected last year when the AfD be­came the first na­tion­al­ist party to sit in the Ber­lin par­lia­ment since the 1960s.

“We’re not an anti-mi­grant party,” Mr Müller in­sists to jour­nal­ists. But when he speaks to vot­ers, his rhetoric is unashamedly pop­ulist. “I live in Ber­lin now, and let me tell you, we don’t want Bavaria to be­come like Ber­lin,” he tells them. “There’s a street near my flat where the Ger­man po­lice won’t go. It’s not safe for a blonde woman to walk there. The whole area’s been taken over by Arab clans.”

The claims about one of the city’s trendier neigh­bour­hoods would puz­zle a Ber­liner, but in ru­ral Rosen­heim the au­di­ence pound their tables in sup­port. One of the party’s cam­paign posters fea­tures an im­age of women in burkas with the cap­tion: “An­other city of Mus­lims ev­ery year.”

In the base­ment of the pub lies a grim re­minder: a framed poster of Ger­man sol­diers – un­usual in Ger­many – with the cap­tion: “In hon­our of those who fought in the war 1939-1945”. “We’re not Nazis,” Mr Müller says. “We rep­re­sent or­di­nary peo­ple.”

But fear of the far-Right is part of the rea­son the CSU has risked ev­ery­thing to take on the AfD. Among the CSU cam­paign posters are pic­tures of Franz Josef Strauss, its leg­endary for­mer leader who died in 1988.

“The only thing Right of us is the wall,” Strauss once fa­mously said. The CSU has al­ways re­garded it­self as a bul­wark against any re­turn of the far-Right in Bavaria, the state where Hitler’s rise to power be­gan.

“That will not work any more,” says Gero Neuge­bauer, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Ber­lin’s Free Univer­sity. “There has been a shift in the party sys­tem in Bavaria, and the AfD can oc­cupy a po­si­tion to the Right of the CSU.”

But there is more to the de­ba­cle of the CSU cam­paign, he says. A per­son­al­ity clash be­tween Mr See­hofer and Mrs Merkel is also driv­ing it, he ar­gues. There were re­ports of open mutiny in the party when Mr See­hofer left an election strat­egy meet­ing early to re­turn to Ber­lin, and he is thought un­likely to sur­vive as leader be­yond the election.

A bad re­sult in Bavaria could shake Mrs Merkel’s al­ready frag­ile grip on power too. But Dr Neuge­bauer ar­gues Mrs Merkel may be able to turn a de­ba­cle at the Bavar­ian polls to her ad­van­tage. “She will have out­lived See­hofer, and that will make her happy. And she will be rid of him as in­te­rior min­is­ter, which should make things a lit­tle eas­ier for her,” he says.

“She will be able to go back to her party and say this is what in-fight­ing re­sults in. There is no ob­vi­ous chal­lenger who can take her on for her party lead­er­ship, so she can tell them: it’s take me or leave it. And by leave it, I mean leave power.”

‘There’s a street near my flat where the Ger­man po­lice won’t go. It’s not safe for a blonde woman to walk there’

Han­sjorg Müller, an AfD politi­cian in the Bun­destag, speaks at an election rally meet­ing in a bierkeller in Rosen­heim, Bavaria. Be­low, election posters out­side Kiefers­felden

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