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