In 2017 — the year before he was ejected as Bavarian state premier and dispatched to Berlin to head up the Interior Ministry — Christian Social Union (CSU) leader Horst Seehofer described his beloved home state as “the gateway to paradise.”
Germany’s prosperous and populous southeastern corner is so synonymous with the Germanic good life that most clichés associated with Europe’s biggest economy (think ruddy-faced old men passing out into their beers at Oktoberfest) are in fact typically Bavarian. It is a tradition-loving, somewhat insular land that combines alpine delights with low unemployment and high wages.
Yet trouble is afoot in Seehofer’s paradise — at least for the party he heads. Polls ahead of tomorrow’s state elections in Bavaria point to an electoral wipeout for his CSU, falling as low as 33 percent (compared to 47.7 percent in the last election).
This Bavarian-based party’s decline marks a historic shift — and one that may have major effects on the entire German political landscape.
The CSU has not seen a slump like this since 1950. Since the end of World War II, the state has grown rich and strong under the CSU, which only operates in Bavaria. It is the markedly more socially conservative sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (the CDU, which does not stand in this state).
The CSU has long enjoyed record-breaking majorities, as high as 60.7 percent in 2003. For decades the party has held an absolute majority; only once has it had to share power in a coalition, from 2008 to 2013.
Germany’s biggest state by area, Bavaria represents 13 million of the country’s total population of 83 million. But the CDU/CSU alliance has also allowed Bavaria to play an outsized role in German politics. Leading CSU faces such as Franz Josef Strauß, who occupied a number of federal cabinet positions between 1953 and 1969, indelibly shaped national politics.
The CSU’s political recipe combines pro-business social market democracy with traditionalist values. In recent years, it is perhaps best-known abroad for having all government buildings hang crosses on the wall as a show of “Christian-occidental” identity. The party opposed the legalization of gay marriage so vehemently it considered suing, and it decries what it terms “gender ideology” in German classrooms. Yet this recipe has long been to the taste of many Bavarians.
While the average CSU supporter is older, feels closer to the church, and is more likely to live in the countryside than a typical voter, the party has mass appeal. Studies show backing for the CSU is spread fairly evenly across occupation and gender, though farmers have traditionally shown a particularly strong affinity for the party.
So why the change of heart? According to Niklas Potrafke of the Munich-based Ifo Institute, voters’ qualms stem not so much from ideological or material complaints as from off-putting CSU leadership squabbles. “One very important factor,” he says, “is internal party struggles.”
Potrafke says Seehofer and his successor as Bavarian premier, Markus Söder, have a “love-hate” relationship marked by “long-standing personal rivalries.” Their dispute has little to do with the content of their policies.
A damning June poll published by the Zeit newspaper found that 39 percent of Bavarians viewed the CSU itself as the state’s biggest political problem, followed by refugees at 30 percent — an issue that often tops the list of voter concerns. Due to its proximity to Austria and Italy, Bavaria was the point of arrival for many of the well over one million asylum seekers that have arrived in Germany since 2015.
The CSU is torn between its perceived need to distance itself from Merkel’s relatively laissez-faire refugee policy, in order to please conservative voters, and the political realities of what it can achieve as a junior coalition partner.
“Some conservatives would of course have liked to close the borders, to stop letting refugees in or to pursue deportations more vigorously,” Potrafke explains. “But it’s not achievable in practice with the [center-left Social Democrats (SPD)] and some parts of the CDU as coalition partners.”
In fact, the CSU’s policy proposals for migration don’t radically diverge from those of the CDU. Both back a more “equitable” distribution of refugees throughout the European Union to disburden Germany, for example. But CSU rhetoric, especially in recent months, has been much harsher.
On his sixty-ninth birthday, Seehofer celebrated the deportation of sixty-nine failed asylum seekers, one of whom later committed suicide in Afghanistan. Söder has sparked controversy with his use of the term “asylum tourism.” In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, leading German Catholic Cardinal Reinhard Marx said such comments were “highly inappropriate” for a supposedly Christian party.
For liberal-minded or devoutly Christian CSU supporters, such rhetoric may have been a step too far.
Potrafke believes migration politics may not play as a big role as some imagine. Equally unappetizing for certain CSU supporters is the party’s capitulation to the CDU on recent socioeconomic initiatives that clash with traditional values — for example, the introduction of a minimum wage and of quotas for women’s participation on executive boards.
Outside the CSU
The CSU’s aggressive conservative charm offensive has not stemmed the flow of voters to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which looks set to take around 13 percent of the vote tomorrow. This is impressive for a party that only entered the federal Bundestag last September, but is still well under AfD’s current national polling average of around 17 percent. Despite the apparent importance of migration to Bavaria’s electorate, the AfD seem not to have cracked the state.
The real winners from the CSU’s projected fall from grace are the centrist, environmentalist Greens, whose vote share has reached 18.5 percent in some polls, up from 8.6 percent in the 2013 vote. But Potrafke says this boost is a product of the CSU’s shortcomings rather than any particular strength of the Greens.
“You have to think about what options are available in Bavaria to voters,” he says. “There are some middle-class people who won’t vote for the AfD because there are crazy people in it. For them AfD is a no-go.”
Any centrist voters turned off by Seehofer and Söder’s anti-migrant rhetoric have few places to go. Bavaria’s left-wing parties — the social-democratic SPD and the socialist Die Linke — face an uphill battle in this conservative, affluent state.
Polling at around 12 percent in Bavaria, the SPD here looks set to achieve well below even its disastrous national score. This is also significantly down from the 2013 state election, when it scored 20.6 percent. The last time the SPD held the Bavarian premiership was in 1957.
Though still a minor player, Die Linke could well make a historic breakthrough. Should it pass the 5 percent threshold (it netted 6.1 percent here in last September’s federal vote and is now polling at around 4 percent), it will win seats in the Bavarian parliament for the first time. It is only the third state election the party has contested and a sign of progress amid its stagnant national performance.
What Defeat Would Mean
Assuming the CSU loses its absolute majority tomorrow, and depending on the exact results, several government constellations are feasible: the CSU could form a coalition with the centrist Free Voters, the Greens, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), or a combination of the above. The CSU could be forced to make concessions to parties on its left flank.
In the short term, the CSU’s downfall would play into Merkel’s hands. A disastrous election result should cow Söder and Seehofer, two of her greatest detractors within her own conservative bloc. One or both could even be forced to resign in the event of an electoral debacle.
Particularly at risk is Seehofer, who has been at the root of two major federal cabinet meltdowns this summer: one over migration policy, and another over the sacking of former domestic intelligence chief Hans-Georg Maaßen for comments relativizing extreme-right violence during the Chemnitz protests.
Söder, along with others in the CSU, blames the precarity of the coalition for their party’s woes. The CSU may make a sacrificial lamb of the troublemaking Seehofer.
For the chancellor, this would provide relief at a moment when dissent against her is on the rise. Even beyond the CDU’s generally poor polling, Merkel’s grip on her party was challenged in an apparent backbencher revolt last month. Her choice for chief whip, the thirteen-year incumbent Volker Kauder, was ousted in favor of newcomer Ralph Brinkhaus.
And just last Friday, a gathering of the CDU/CSU’s youth wing, Junge Union (JU), saw Merkel greeted with a lukewarm reception and calls for a change of tack in the coalition.
Observers have rushed to interpret such events as the beginning of the end of the Merkel era, though it should be noted that such predictions have dogged all thirteen years of her rule. Merkel has yet to clarify whether she plans to fight for a fifth chancellorship.
In the long term, the CSU’s decline could prove either a temporary blip or a seismic change.
On one hand, the vote seems unlikely to unleash historic change outside of Bavaria immediately. But if the CSU permanently loses its dominance in Bavaria, the whole conservative bloc would be weakened nationally, opening up political space to both Left and Right.
The CSU’s woes are a reminder of the opportunities at stake when the right-wing establishment begins to flounder. What remains to be seen is who will benefit.