BERLIN — Earlier this summer, the leaders of Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union, the sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, threatened to bring down the German government in a
with Merkel over stricter measures for refugees and asylum-seekers. The move was largely seen as an attempt by the party, which is facing a challenge from the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany, or AfD, to prove it was tough enough on migration issues.
It didn’t work out the way they intended.
Two months after Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, the head of the CSU, first went head-to-head with Merkel, the party’s fortunes have declined further and its prospects look dimmer ahead of pivotal regional elections next month. Long the dominant force in Bavaria with an absolute majority in its state parliament, the CSU’s support has dropped to a historic low of 36 percent—a more than 10 percent drop from the last election five years ago, and a sign that it will almost certainly need to work with another party form a coalition government in Bavaria after October’s vote. Meanwhile, Seehofer and Markus Soeder, the CSU’s co-leader and the Bavarian state premier, have become increasingly unpopular in their own state.
“Their strategy has backfired,” says Marcel Dirsus, a political scientist at the University of Kiel. “They tried to move to the right in order to convince people to vote for them instead of the AfD, but instead it seems to have strengthened the AfD.”
It normally wouldn’t be obvious why the outcome of a state-level election in Germany should have implications beyond its own country’s borders. But as European center-right parties look to find a strategy for combating the far right and successfully winning back voters who’ve drifted toward these parties, the Oct. 14 elections in Bavaria will be closely watched as a test case. Should the center-right co-opt the far right’s rhetoric on migration issues, like Austria’s Sebastian Kurz did to win the chancellorship there last fall, or ignore the pressure from the far right and fight a campaign on its own terms? At least so far, the CSU’s strategy of imitating the AfD’s rhetoric on migration hasn’t served it well—and with less than six weeks until election day, it remains to be seen whether the party will change course.
Though the CSU has long been critical of Merkel’s position on refugees, the real drama between Merkel and the CSU began in June. At the time, Seehofer, who as interior minister is responsible for carrying out Germany’s migration policy, announced his so-called “master plan” on the issue, which called for new measures including turning away asylum-seekers at the German border. Merkel soundly rejected Seehofer’s plans, saying a European solution was necessary to solve the crisis, but Seehofer announced he would implement them anyway. Seehofer’s actions left Merkel with a seemingly impossible choice: either fire him, which would cause him and his party to walk away from their governing coalition, bringing down the government, or capitulate to his new measures and weaken her standing in the process.
The upcoming elections in Bavaria offer an important test case for European center-right parties looking to combat the far right.
At the time, Seehofer and Soeder’s move was part of what appeared to be a dual campaign strategy. They sharpened their rhetoric on immigration, with Seehofer going toe-to-toe with Merkel in Berlin and Soeder calling for a border police force back in Bavaria. The party also worked to bill itself as the sole protector of Bavarian “values,” passing a law requiring that a crucifix hang in every public building across the state.
Because the AfD is a thorn in the CSU’s side “that just has completely spooked” the party, “Soeder and Seehofer figured they need to tack very hard to the right,” says Sudha David-Wilp, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “They pulled a dramatic move earlier this summer by threatening to basically dissolve the coalition.” The political alliance between the CSU and the Christian Democrats goes back to 1949.
Ultimately Merkel was able to defuse the showdown by securing agreements with other European countries to work together on migration, a move that made Seehofer back down, as he deemed Merkel’s actions sufficient. But public opinion indicates that Bavaria’s voters are keen on punishing Seehofer, Soeder and their party as a whole—while Merkel, on the other hand, came out of the situation relatively unscathed, despite initial fears of a lasting impact on her chancellorship.
One early August survey from German pollster Forsa found that Soeder is the least popular premier of all of Germany’s 16 federal states—64 percent of Bavarians disapproved
of his government, while just 31 percent approved. And nationally, Seehofer’s approval rating has been nearly cut in half
since the migration showdown. He had an approval rating of 47 percent in May, and 43 percent in June, just a few percentage points behind Merkel; by July, however, Seehofer’s approval rating had sunk to just 27 percent. Merkel, by contrast, had only fallen from 50 percent to 48 percent in the same polls. One survey, which asked respondents a question about the top problems facing their state, even found that more Bavarians—34 percent—saw Soeder and the CSU as the biggest problem
than those—28 percent—who believed it was refugee issues. “It was an open question: ‘Please name the three most important problems we have,’” says Peter Matuschek, the chief political analyst at Forsa.
“It was very clear to a lot of people that the showdown with Merkel wasn’t about the substance of the matter,” Dirsus says. “What they were discussing concerned very few people, and in the end they provoked a fight for the sake of provoking a fight.”
As campaign season begins in earnest in Bavaria, it’s difficult to tell whether the CSU will change course. The party has unveiled its slogan, “Soeder Macht’s”—“Soeder Does It”—which seems to be geared toward highlighting his leadership and record in office rather than the law-and-order issues he and the party were trumpeting just months ago. But as the AfD will almost certainly remain fixated on immigration between now and mid-October, the CSU faces a choice about the best electoral path forward—and its decision will serve as an example for other parties facing similar far-right challenges across Europe.
Emily Schultheis is a freelance journalist based in Berlin, where she primarily covers elections and the rise of populism. Her reporting has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy and Politico, among other publications.