How Far Will Bavaria’s CSU Go to Fend Off Germany’s Far-Right?

Angela Merkel’s sister party, the Christian Social Union, is taking an extreme line on refugees and threatening to bring down her coalition.

By Emily Schultheis, a freelance journalist based in Berlin.
Markus Söder of the Bavarian Christian Social Union and the new governor of Bavaria conducts a  brass band at the Bavarian state parliament on March 16, 2018 in Munich, Germany.
Markus Söder of the Bavarian Christian Social Union and the new governor of Bavaria conducts a brass band at the Bavarian state parliament on March 16, 2018 in Munich, Germany. (Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

DETTELBACH, Germany — “The cross is of course first a religious symbol, but there’s so much more in it,” Bavarian Premier Markus Söder told a crowd at a campaign event in the southern German town of Dettelbach on June 7. “In Bavaria … there is a different connection between the state and religion.” In anticipation of the state’s elections this October, Söder recently oversaw the passage of a law requiring that crucifixes be installed in every public building starting this month, an initiative he bills as a means of protecting “Bavarian identity and Christian values.”

As the election campaign heats up, Söder’s Christian Social Union (CSU), the local Bavarian counterpart to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is pursuing a campaign strategy that pairs hard-line immigration policies with calls to protect “Bavarian identity” and “Christian values.”

In Berlin, CSU’s chairman, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, says he will implement his new “master plan” for migration — which includes allowing German states to turn asylum-seekers away at the border — with or without Merkel’s approval. Seehofer, long a fixture in Bavarian politics, asserted this spring that Islam “is not part of Germany” and added the word Heimat to the name of his ministry — the German word refers to home, comfort, and belonging, but it also has been used by Nazis and other far-right groups.

Meanwhile, in Munich, the new Bavarian premier, Söder, has followed the same strategy since he took office in March, celebrating his crucifix law as a defense of Germany’s Christian identity and calling for the creation of a border police unit and new refugee holding centers.

Party leaders clearly hope their electoral road map will help them take back rhetorical ground they’d ceded to the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, whose rise contributed to the CSU losing more than 10 points in last fall’s federal elections. The AfD, which won 12.6 percent of the vote nationally and entered the German parliament for the first time, could even surpass the center-left Social Democrats to become the second-strongest party in Bavaria this fall.

For the CSU, a stronger showing for the AfD in October could mean the end of its dominance over Bavarian politics: It’s hard to remember a time when the party didn’t hold an absolute majority in the state parliament. Should it lose that absolute majority, it would be only the second time in more than five decades that it has done so.

But whether or not the CSU succeeds in fending off the AfD electorally, the regional party’s current course highlights the deepening divide between Seehofer and Söder’s vision and Merkel’s more moderate brand of conservatism — and it begs the question of whether, by seeking to outrun the AfD on migration, the CSU is just further legitimizing the far-right’s position on the issue. Those tensions spilled out into public view this week as Merkel and Seehofer hit an impasse over the enforcement of Seehofer’s planned refugee policies — a situation that, if neither side backs down, could shatter the current governing coalition.

“The people of Germany finally expect a turning point on asylum, a turning point in refugee policy,” Söder told German broadcaster ZDF Friday morning. Those comments came after a Thursday tweet in which he said, “Germany cannot wait endlessly for Europe but has to act independently.” The CSU has long worked to position itself to Merkel’s right on refugee and immigration issues, and it has criticized her decision to allow more than 1 million refugees into Germany from the earliest days of the 2015 refugee crisis. But with election day in Bavaria just a few months away, its effort to differentiate itself from Merkel on the issue has reached unprecedented heights.

At the event in Dettelbach, Söder told several hundred CSU supporters that stricter refugee policies are “necessary” to combat the “profound uncertainty” among the German people since the refugee crisis began in 2015. “The German people are ultimately very ready to help,” he said. “It’s just that they want clear paths and reasonable politics.” Söder declined to be interviewed by Foreign Policy after the event, and the CSU turned down subsequent interview requests.

If the CSU believes betting on tougher refugee policies will help it keep the AfD at bay in October, it’s in part because it sees a successful precedent in neighboring Austria. In last fall’s parliamentary elections, now-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz rebranded his center-right People’s Party and shifted its immigration rhetoric sharply to the right to successfully overtake the far-right Freedom Party. (Kurz now heads a coalition government that includes the far-right party, an arrangement CSU leaders insist they would never accept in Germany.)

But whereas the 31-year-old Kurz called for a “new style” of politics and rebranded his party as a Macronesque movement, the CSU has focused on tradition and deep cultural roots. In addition to billing itself the most effective protector of Germany’s borders, the second prong of the CSU’s strategy is portraying itself as the sole protector of traditional Bavarian identity and values.

A party that has long been identified with “laptops and lederhosen” — a reference to its dual focus on modernization and tradition — is these days aggressively emphasizing the latter, arguing that Christian values and symbols should be protected and celebrated as an integral part of Bavaria’s cultural heritage.

Of course, like other traditional parties that have mimicked the rhetoric of their far-right opponents, there’s an inherent risk in the CSU’s strategy: The further it moves to the right, the more it risks turning off some of its more moderate supporters. “As a democratic party, they will never be able to be as radical as to win over these voters and not risk their own identity,” said Peter Matuschek, the chief political analyst at the German polling firm Forsa. “This is a very dangerous strategy, and we will know better in the fall whether this pays off,” he added. But in the long run, he contends, it is unlikely to help the CDU-CSU as a whole.

Barbara Becker, a CSU candidate for state parliament in Kitzingen, said her party’s emphasis on identity and values is an “emotional” appeal — and it’s the only way the CSU can effectively counter the similarly emotional message from the AfD, especially in the more traditional southern part of Bavaria. “I think it’s a constant strategy, the Christian values,” Becker said. “The CSU campaign is very much emotional. … They’re touching the heart of the people. It touches the people, this discussion about crucifixes in offices.”

That emotional connection with voters is clearly intended to outflank the AfD in its attempts to appeal to voters’ sense of tradition. Among the AfD’s more memorable campaign posters last fall, one featured a pregnant white woman and read, “‘New Germans?’ We make them ourselves.” Another, showing three women in various German regions’ traditional dresses (including the Bavarian dirndl), read, “Colorful diversity? We already have that!”

CSU leaders argue that the AfD, despite its claims to represent Bavarian culture and tradition, actually stands for the opposite; they draw a distinction between established parties and the AfD, which they accuse of operating outside of democratic norms, despite the fact that it won its support in democratic elections and advocates many of the same policies the CSU promotes.

Last month, the CSU’s secretary-general, Markus Blume, wrote in a party strategy paper that the AfD is the “enemy of everything Bavaria stands for.” And in Dettelbach, Söder told the crowd that the AfD — whose leader, Alexander Gauland, recently referred to the Nazi years as a “speck of bird poop” in German history — is “becoming increasingly extreme.” “That’s not the way,” Söder added.

At least among local CSU activists, the party’s current course seems to be convincing. In conversations with a handful of voters at Söder’s Dettelbach event, all saw his implementation of the crucifix legislation as in line with the state’s core values. “In Europe, in Germany, in Bavaria: Things are very much shaped by Christianity at all three levels,” said Maria Fieber of Schwarzach. “The cross isn’t just a Christian symbol, so to say — for me it belongs in every school, it belongs in every government office, and I think it’s important that this is being done.”

Should it succeed this fall, the CSU’s strategic experiment in Bavaria — and its increasingly stark contrast with Merkel and the CDU’s message from Berlin — will certainly serve as an example for other traditional parties across Europe that are seeking a roadmap for combating the far-right.

“There’s an ongoing debate among mainstream parties about the way you should respond to extremists,” said Marcel Dirsus, a political scientist at the University of Kiel. “There’s one group of people that says you should emulate their policies … and there’s another group of people who says that, if you start to emulate these parties, you’re not going win back any of these voters, but you’re going to give legitimacy to these extremists and people are going to vote for the ‘original’ party.”

In other words, the CSU may well, like Austria’s Kurz, succeed in preventing further defections to the far-right — and after this week’s migration spat in Berlin, it could endear itself to anti-immigration voters who chose the far-right AfD last fall. But in many ways, the CSU’s strategy is a short-term fix to a long-term problem: It may keep the AfD from making further gains, but will give credence to hard-line immigration views that are largely indistinguishable from the AfD’s.

That cognitive dissonance came up in conversations with some CSU supporters. Asked in Dettelbach about his party’s efforts to combat and out-message the AfD, a local party activist, Stefan Siegert, insisted that the CSU needs to work to bring back in disaffected AfD voters, but without giving up its identity as an essentially centrist party. That, it would seem, is easier said than done.

“The CSU is a people’s party and actually tries to see itself as the conservative middle in Bavaria,” Siegert said. But he added: “It’s difficult: One tries to bring in everyone, but there have to be boundaries.”

Emily Schultheis is a freelance journalist based in Berlin, where she writes about European elections and the rise of populism.