The specter of a potential collapse has been hanging over Germany’s grand coalition for weeks. The infighting is not between the center-right and center-left partners but within the conservative camp — the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU).
Triggered by Interior Minister (and CSU leader) Horst Seehofer’s proposal to deny entry to asylum seekers who have been registered in another European Union member state, the crisis has put the CSU at odds with Chancellor Angela Merkel, head of the CDU.
A fresh pledge by the E.U. to do more to tackle illegal migration was deemed insufficient by Seehofer on Sunday. He threatened to step down as interior minister, but emergency talks between the chancellor and her minister on Monday yielded the compromise to process asylum claims at “transit centers” located near the border.
An increasingly uneasy alliance
While officially two separate parties, Merkel’s CDU and its CSU “sister party” in Bavaria represent a single parliamentary group in the Bundestag, the German Parliament. Even though the CSU contests elections only in Bavaria (while Merkel’s CDU fields candidates outside but not in Bavaria), it has always played a key role at the federal level, acting as the guardian of social conservatism and a more national-minded approach to politics within this alliance.
This tactic let both parties pursue a vote-maximizing approach, with the CDU freed up to appeal to more centrist voters as the CSU guarded their ideological right flank against potential far-right challengers.
The CSU and CDU came perilously close to a split in 1976, but tensions in recent years have stretched this alliance to its limits. The CDU has swung heavily to the center under Merkel, appropriating social democratic and Green positions in an attempt to branch out into new segments of the electorate. The CSU, meanwhile, has found it more and more difficult to stake out a distinctive conservative profile in the nation’s capital and within the alliance.
The refugee crisis was a catalyst for infighting
Quarrels between the two about the handling of the refugee crisis have been a ubiquitous feature of German politics since Merkel’s government decided to admit large numbers of refugees in late 2015, virtually all of whom entered the country through Bavaria. At the height of the crisis, Seehofer, who was then the Bavarian state premier as well as the CSU head, floated the idea of challenging the federal government’s refugee policy in Germany’s constitutional court — while lamenting that Merkel’s approach had brought an end to “law and order” in the country.
Seehofer even accused the Merkel government — of which the CSU was and is a member — of presiding over a “rule of injustice,” effectively denouncing her leadership style as bordering on authoritarian.
New elections and the formation of a new government in early 2018 appeared to have plastered some of the cracks between the CDU and CSU. Seehofer took over the federal Interior Ministry — which is in charge of protecting the border — and both parties agreed to a “soft” cap to allow no more than 200,000 refugees into the country annually, subject to an increase in exceptional circumstances.
Seehofer’s sudden ultimatum
What brought the disagreements to a head in recent weeks? CSU leaders cite revelations about mismanagement at the federal agency tasked with assessing asylum claims and the alleged rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl by an Iraqi asylum seeker as the reason for a harder line on migration to win back voters’ trust. Perhaps more importantly, though, Bavarian voters are heading to the polls this October in state elections.
It is difficult to overstate the CSU’s dominance in Bavaria since the party’s establishment after World War II. Since 1962, the CSU has failed to win an outright majority of seats in Bavaria’s state parliament just once — in a country where coalitions are the norm both at the federal and state level.
As is the case in the rest of the country, the emergence of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has, however, for the first time in postwar Germany’s history provided disillusioned right-wing voters with a viable second option across the country.
The AfD seems likely to come in second in Bavaria’s state elections
In the 2017 federal election, the AfD came in third in Bavaria with 12.4 percent, doing particularly well in areas of the state that had been the entry point for refugees in 2015 and 2016. The CSU dropped 10.5 points compared with four years earlier.
AfD voters are also the biggest supporters of a CSU expansion to other parts of Germany. This suggests that the 1 million voters who left the CDU/CSU and moved into the AfD’s camp between the federal elections of 2013 and 2017 largely defected because of Merkel’s ability to get her way on the refugee issue.
Fears of losing voters to the AfD this October, in case the federal government continues its reluctance to turn away asylum seekers at the border, helps explain the CSU’s recent hard-line shift on the refugee question. CSU leaders see their own party’s inability to press for more conservative policies within Merkel’s government as a key reason for the rise and establishment of the AfD.
Bavarian State Premier Markus Söder even adopted a terminology usually reserved for the far-right fringe when he vowed to put an end to “asylum tourism.” The fact that German public opinion is increasingly in favor of far more restrictive migration policies may embolden the CSU to take an even tougher line in future discussions related to migration.
Stepping away from the brink — for now?
Monday’s compromise illustrates that an official split between the “sister parties” remains unlikely in the immediate future. The CDU’s leftward shift under Merkel is nonetheless making it increasingly difficult for the CSU to fulfill the role of corralling right-wing voters into the Christian democratic camp.
The AfD’s rise also threatens the CSU’s longtime majority in Bavaria, potentially forcing the latter into a coalition with a centrist partner that could lead to a further dilution of the CSU’s conservative profile. Late-night negotiations between the CDU and CSU could therefore become a recurring feature of German politics.
Philipp Adorf is a research assistant at the University of Bonn. His recent work assessed the relationship between the financial crisis and the rise of both left- and right-wing populist challengers in Europe.