Horst Seehofer on Monday rallied his Bavarian conservatives around Angela Merkel in her run for a fourth term, putting aside differences with the chancellor over an upper limit on asylum-seekers pouring into Germany.
The Christian Social Union party on Monday officially nominated Ms. Merkel as its party candidate. The chancellor, who announced her plans to run for reelection in November, had already won the nomination from her Christian Democratic Union party in December.
The show of unity comes amid growing support for the Social Democratic Party’s surprise challenger, Martin Schulz, who has energized the party base and experienced a significant boost in national polls.
Ms. Merkel acknowledged that she faces plenty of hard work. “This will be my most difficult election campaign ever,” she said during a joint press conference with Mr. Seehofer.
Ms. Merkel was elected Germany's first female chancellor in 2005 and has won every contest since. She has emerged, arguably, as the most powerful political leader in the European Union, which is facing deep economic and political problems.
With the rise of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), seven parties are expected to enter the German parliament, the Bundestag. The AfD has been nibbling especially at the conservative base of the CSU.
This will be my most difficult election campaign ever. Angela Merkel, German Chancellor
At the other end of the spectrum, the SPD has been winning back voters with Mr. Schulz, who has entered politics in Berlin after a long stint in Brussels. His last position was president of the European Parliament. The Insa poll published Monday showed the SPD under his leadership pulling ahead of the CDU-CSU for the first time in years, leading 31 percent to 30 percent.
But Ms. Merkel has cleared one big hurdle by keeping her Bavarian ally-cum-nemesis in her camp. “We’re going into this election campaign together,” Mr. Seehofer said, claiming that under the conservative leader, Germany has become “an island of stability.” Preventing a coalition of center-left Social Democrats and the left-wing Green Party and the Left Party, he added, was a top priority.
The alliance between the two conservative party leaders has been seriously frayed since 2015, when Ms. Merkel opened the doors to refugees fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans, with many of them pouring into Bavaria. Mr. Seehofer later emerged as one of the most prominent critics of the chancellor’s migrant policies.
Their discord over a refugee cap remains, despite their unity on many other migrant issues, such as tougher asylum rules, swifter deportation of rejected applicants and acknowledgement of several countries declared “safe,” meaning that people from there can’t apply for refuge.
“I don’t plan to change my position,” Ms. Merkel said.
Mr. Seehofer has repeatedly demanded an upper limit of 200,000 refugees per year in Germany.
“We respect each other’s different views on this issue,” Mr. Seehofer said, adding that the party leaders could still reach some common ground down the road. “We both agreed that we don’t want to repeat the situation we had in 2015.”
That year, more than 890,000 asylum-seekers arrived in Germany, overwhelming immigration, security and housing officials. The number dropped to 280,000 in 2016 after the Balkan route was shut down by border closures from other nations and the European Union reached an agreement with Turkey to halt traffic across the Aegis sea to Greece.
“The federal elections will be decided in a marathon race, not a sprint,” Alexander Dobrindt, CSU transport minister, told Handelsblatt. “SPD candidate Schulz will have to show that he won’t run out of breath after the first few meters.”