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Munich Putsch: The region that could bring down a chancellor

MUNICH, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 20: Participants dressed in Bavarian folk outfits march in the Parade of Costumes and Riflemen (Trachten- und Schuetzenzug) on the second day of the 2015 Oktoberfest on September 20, 2015 in Munich, Germany. The 182nd Oktoberfest will be open to the public from September 19 through October 4and will draw millions of visitors from across the globe in the world's largest beer fest. (Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

Bavarian resident IAN WALKER on how the normally serene state is squaring up to Merkel

In the past, Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU) has tended to back down and know its place when its political interests have come up against those of wider Germany. This isn’t surprising. The Bavarians are quite happy to know their place – mainly because that place is Bavaria.

Affluent and dynamic, it is the famed land of laptops and lederhosen. Bavaria quite likes to think of itself as different to the rest of Germany and this is not surprising because by almost any criteria it is a 21st century success story.

But in recent days the CSU has been at war with its coalition ally, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) over immigration. This fratricidal fight is unlike any that has gone before, with the CSU not backing down, raising the prospect that the region could yet bring down the chancellor.

Since the federal elections last September, German politics has been infected with the vitriol of populism, with the anti-immigration and eurosceptic rhetoric that entails. The right wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party won 12.6% of the vote last autumn and received 94 seats in the Bundestag, becoming its third largest party. The traditional German political establishment was suddenly faced with the same populist politics sweeping through the Western world. The primary task for Merkel since that election has to been to isolate the AfD.

This is what the chancellor is best at. With her combination of patience, compromise and stubborn caution, Merkel managed to create a workable coalition, with the CSU, but also with the Social Democrats. The existential threat that AfD’s populism brought to Germany’s idea of itself as a liberal and tolerant country seemed to be contained. Populism can put an idiot in the White House and can render the entire British political establishment paralysed, but in Germany, under Merkel, it was still (just about) business as usual. But then the Bavarian CSU decided that its problems should become Germany’s problems.

The CSU has, since its formation in 1945, always allied itself, nationally, with the CDU. The party only campaigns in Bavaria, and the CDU does not field candidates in CSU territory. This union, sometimes called die Unionsfraktion (‘Union Faction’), has been both one of the dominant political forces in post-war German politics and also one of its most stabilising elements. It is an arrangement with roots going back to the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

The challenge then was how to reconstitute politics. The left-wing parties were not a problem – many leading socialists and communists had fled Germany in the 1930s. Returning in 1945, they became the backbone of the post-war SPD and KPD parties – for instance, Willy Brandt, who spent the war in Scandinavia, and went on to become mayor of Berlin and chancellor of Germany.

Reconstituting right-wing parties was more difficult. As well as requiring politicians untainted by Nazism, the country also needed to avoid the sheer number of parties which had existed in the Weimar era and which had been a factor in the rise of Hitler. The CDU was formed to achieve this, under the canny leadership of Konrad Adenauer.

But Bavaria, being Bavaria, went its own way. Partly this was down to a certain idea of regional exceptionalism and partly it was down to the US (as the occupying power in southern Germany) being happy with local politics being separate from the rest of Germany.

At a federal level, the CDU and the CSU immediately teamed up. And despite a brief period in the 1970s when it looked like there may be a split, the two parties have generally worked well together. There are slight differences. The CSU is more socially conservative (until the AfD got seats in the Bundestag, it was Germany’s most right-wing party) and tends to be more parochial in its outlook. Indeed, it is this difference that highlights the underlying tension between the two which is now very much exposed: the CDU is a national party, the CSU is a regional one. What the CSU cares about most is Bavaria.

In Bavaria itself, the CSU has had an almost uninterrupted dominance of local politics since the war. Since 1946, with the exception of a three-year period between 1954 and 1957, the Bavarian prime minister has been a member of the CSU. Bavaria is not a one-party state, but it is as close to being a one-party state as you will find anywhere in a free and democratic nation.

But the national elections of September 2017 cast a shadow over that dominance, AfD did well in Bavaria – particularly along its eastern borders with the Czech Republic. The Bavarian town of Deggendorf saw AfD get its highest share of the vote outside of the former German Democratic Republic states. Here, on the banks of the Danube, the AfD vote was 19.17% – much higher than the party’s national share. This success came at the expense of the CSU. It still won the election, but throughout Bavaria the CSU experienced a drop of more than 10% in its vote share.

Like populist parties elsewhere in Europe, the appeal of the AfD tends to be highest in economically-deprived areas. In Germany this is the former East German states. But Bavaria is not poor or economically deprived. In fact, it is the very opposite.

Bavarian unemployment is the lowest of Germany’s 16 states. The economy is booming, house prices are rising. People are doing well. Deggendorf, a typical small Bavarian town, is practically an advert for everything that is good and successful about modern Bavaria and modern Germany. So why did 19.17% of its electorate vote for the AfD? There is only one reason: refugees. There are people in Deggendorf who don’t want poor, desperate foreigners in their town.

Merkel famously declared in the summer of 2015, after a series of humanitarian catastrophes that were linked to the refugee crisis, that Germany could cope with these refugees, and that it would take nearly a million asylum seekers and migrants.

Much of this coping took place in Bavaria. It is second only to North Rhine-Westphalia for its number of asylum applications and Deggendorf itself had a reception centre for asylum seekers. Not all the locals were happy.

So in towns like Deggendorf, the AfD – with its strong anti-immigration rhetoric – has become a problem for the CSU. In October of this year, there are local elections in Bavaria. So, terrified by that 10% drop in its vote share in the national poll, the CSU has begun to take the political initiative and to try to outflank the AfD by adopting their policies.

This has been done both at the regional and national levels. Regionally, it has occurred under the leadership of Markus Söder, who became the CSU’s minister-president in March. His first major initiative was to increase police powers. New rules were introduced that gave officers the ability to investigate what were called ‘impending dangers’ as opposed to ‘concrete dangers’. In other words, civil liberties were sacrificed in service of increased surveillance.

Then Söder’s second big campaign made the national news. In June, a law was passed instructing that most state or government buildings in Bavaria must display the crucifix. This was done in the name of Bavaria’s Catholic values. He may as well have instructed ‘No Islam’ be painted on state buildings, because this is what he meant with this attempt to bring back 17th century values to the question of church and state.

But it’s the third CSU initiative that has really made the news, and which threatens to bring down Merkel’s coalition. Söder’s predecessor as CSU minister president, Horst Seehofer, is currently Merkel’s minister of the interior. In this role, he has asserted that Germany should have the right to turn back migrants who have arrived from other EU countries. This hard-line position on migration is in direct conflict with Merkel’s.

The chancellor’s position is that any decision about the movement of migrants is a matter that should be dealt with by the EU, and not unilaterally. Merkel’s argument is an argument for Europe. Seehofer’s argument is an argument for Bavaria. And this argument has turned into a stand-off.

If Seehofer does not back down then Merkel will have to act; but if she does, this could end the current coalition – or her political career. There is also the opportunity for another compromise. Seehofer may have over-played his hand and may be seeking a way out. His position seems to have shifted. He still wants border controls, but now wants them introduced gradually.

Meanwhile, there is anger, not just in the CDU, but also among the other German political parties (apart from AfD) at the CSU. The governing coalition took a very long time to assemble, and required delicate negotiations with the Social Democrats. The Bavarians have risked it because of their local political concerns.

Furthermore, there is anger that the CSU have dragged the politics of AfD into the heart of government, at a time when most political parties have been working hard to isolate the populist group. Donald Trump himself, in his characteristically maladroit way, has waded into the row on Twitter on the side of the CSU. Since the US president was elected, Germany has been one of his staunchest critics. The CSU are looking to change that.

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