This article was originally published on February 15, 2018, and republished without changes in May 2018.
Markus Söder had a stark message for the 4,000 party loyalists, many clad in traditional leather pants and dirndl dresses, who turned out to see the CSU politician speak at an annual political roast on Ash Wednesday: “For anyone who believes that Islam or even Sharia belongs to our country, I can only say they have nothing to do with Bavaria’s cultural heritage.”
Was that a battle cry against the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party? You bet it was. The AfD campaigned on a xenophobic, anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic platform last year and caused a political earthquake in Europe’s second-largest economy when it became the first right-wing party voted into the Bundestag since World War II. And more than a battle cry, was Mr. Söder's choice of location for the roast – Passau – near the Austrian border, where thousands of Muslim migrants crossed the border in 2015 and 2016, in any way symbolic? Absolutely.
Mr. Söder has shifted into attack mode, eight months ahead of the state election in Bavaria, where the CSU, the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU, could lose its absolute majority in the regional parliament if it fails to halt the AfD. The state finance and homeland minister, who will replace his party's premier, Horst Seehofer, next month, is pulling out all the weapons in his war chest to fight the populist party. In an impassioned 80-minute speech, he vowed to increase deportations of failed asylum seekers, tighten border security and beef up scrutiny of foreign funding for mosques – all core vote-grabbing issues of the AfD.
Above the clatter of beer mugs and lively chatter, the 51-year-old politician spoke of Germans being worried about the sheer numbers of refugees and other migrants who have entered the country (more than 1.4 million people have applied for asylum since 2014, representing more than 43 percent of total applications to the EU). While honoring the numbers Bavaria has accepted, he warned of the soaring costs that have emptied state coffers. “We can’t forget our own people,” he said to a roaring crowd.
In veiled criticism of Chancellor Merkel’s open-door policy that allowed many refugees to enter the country without identification and of the government’s largely failed program to deport rejected asylum seekers, he added: “We are the only country in the world in which you can get in without a passport but you can’t get out.” That line drew even louder clapping and cheering.
In many ways, Mr. Söder sounded like Franz-Josef Strauss, the tough-talking arch-Bavarian who helped found the CSU and led the party for 25 years. The legendary politician proclaimed in his campaign for the state election in 1986: “No legitimate political party can be right of the CSU."
That's exactly where the designated premier wants to reposition the party after being tugged into the middle as a junior partner in the conservative alliance, known as the “union,” together with Ms. Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. “We want to reunite the democratic right,” he said. “It was a mistake to surrender to (the AfD) those voters who are to the right of center.”
The conservatives, Mr. Söder stressed, must make clear to voters that the AfD is “no substitute for the union.” He stressed the CSU was not moving to the far-right but simply returning to its “past credibility.”
The CDU and CSU both bled support to the anti-immigrant AfD in last September's national election. The alliance suffered its worst election result since WWII, down to 33 percent of the vote from 41.5 percent in 2013.
Ms. Merkel has come under intense fire in recent days from conservatives for giving too many concessions to the Social Democrats to renew a coalition deal with the center-left party. Many are particularly angered over losing the finance ministry, considered second only to the chancellorship in importance.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]