06 July 2018, Berlin: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Federal Minister for Internal Affairs, Horst Seehofer (R) of the Christian Social Union (CSU) at a cabinet meeting. Kay Nietfeld/ Press Association. All rights reserved.
Earlier this year, Angela Merkel finally managed to put together a grand coalition between Germany's traditional mainstream parties: the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU); and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). It is a coalition already living on borrowed time.
This has nothing to do with the fact that the SPD has been sagging in the polls, further weakening an already declining party. It has far more to do with the CDU's "sister party," the Bavarian CSU. Traditionally, the two parties have been in a joint parliamentary group. This, however, has not prevented the CSU from repeatedly threatening to extend its reach beyond the borders of Bavaria, forming a "genuinely" conservative-national party to directly compete with the CDU.
In recent weeks, the CSU has revived this threat. And with good reason. The CSU has always styled itself as the perfect expression of the Bavarian Lebensgefühl, that combination of "laptop and lederhosen" Bavarian politicians like to evoke. In Bavaria, the CSU considers itself an institution, on par with the Oktoberfest and Germany's serial football champion, the FC Bayern München.
The CSU has ruled the state for most of the postwar period, turning it into a virtual one-party state. Challenges to its rule have been few and far between. To safeguard its dominant position it was paramount for the CSU to win majorities, enshrined in the magic formula of "50 plus" (i.e. more than 50 percent of the vote), which until recently was one of the CSU's central dogmas.
Majoritarian alarm bells
It is hardly surprising if, after the disastrous results of last year's federal election, alarm bells started to ring in the CSU headquarters in Munich. The party lost more than 10 percent of the vote, ending up way below the 50-percent mark. The losses were particularly dramatic in former CSU strongholds in the eastern part of the state. It was here that the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Germany's version of radical right-wing populism, achieved some of its best results.
With more than 12 percent of the vote, the AfD poses a fundamental challenge to the CSU. Ever since the mid-1980s, the CSU has insisted that there must not be a "democratically legitimated party to the right of the CSU." The author of this dictum was Franz-Josef Strauss, the party's quasi-mythical Übervater, uttered in response to the electoral success of the Republikaner, a right-wing protest party founded by a prominent political journalist and TV host. The success of the Republikaner was short-lived; its collapse, however, was more a result of internal dissent and infighting than CSU strategy.
If the CSU switched into panic mode following last year's election, it was largely because of this self-declared claim. No one in the party leadership wants to be held responsible for failing to prevent the establishment of a radical right populist party to the right of the CSU. It would probably mean the end of his or her political career in Germany. In these circumstances, attack seems to be the best form of defense – even if that means attacking Angela Merkel.
The reason is obvious: the CSU places its disastrous decline in the polls squarely upon Angela Merkel's course charted over the refugee question. Surveys have shown that the overwhelming majority of AfD supporters, and a significant majority of CDU/CSU voters, are deeply unhappy with the government's asylum policy. Accordingly, the demand for a fundamental policy reversal appears a safe bet to regain voters who have apparently gone astray.
All or nothing
This is particularly urgent in light of the upcoming Bavarian state elections in October this year. Current polls credit the CSU with not more than 40 percent of the vote – far short of an absolute majority. 50 percent plus thus appears to be a thing of the past. At the same time, the AfD continues to thrive, despite the CSU's rather clumsy attempts to steal its signature issue. Most recent polls have the AfD on the verge of overtaking the SPD – admittedly not much of a feat given the SPD's traditional anemia in Bavaria.
To make things worse, recent polls also indicate that Bavarian voters are hardly sold on the CSU's anti-Merkel strategy. This suggests that the AfD's success in Bavaria has less to do with the refugee question than the state of the CSU. Even CSU voters appear to be thoroughly disenchanted with a party that spends more time and effort on internal scuffles for positions than on concrete policies. The image of the party's two leading politicians, Horst Seehofer (minister of the interior) in Berlin and Markus Söder (Bavarian premier) in Munich, is not particularly good either. Neither appears apt to fill the shoes of their illustrious predecessors, particularly Franz-Josef Strauss.
The CSU's position is weak – but unfortunately, not weak enough to not bring down Angela Merkel. At the moment, the CSU leadership seems determined to play all or nothing – even at the risk of breaking up the coalition with the CDU and, with it, putting an end to Angela Merkel's chancellorship. The stakes are high, not only for Angela Merkel, but also for Germany, until recently a rock of stability in an increasingly turbulent sea.