It is somehow fitting that the Bavarian wing of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right alliance should learn to sing with the choir again at the party’s annual retreat in a restored medieval monastery, where monks chanted in harmony for centuries.
The Christian Social Union, or CSU, was the source of continual discord in the past year, threatening at times to topple Berlin’s shaky coalition government. The tone emanating this week from the Seeon Abbey in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, now a conference center, is much more harmonious.
“All told, we want to show that we are a strong, constructive partner,” said the Bavarian state premier, Markus Söder. His new mantra: “Conflict paralyzes, conflict is boring, conflict is annoying,” which sounds slightly snappier in German.
The CSU delivered healthy servings of paralysis, boredom and annoyance in 2018 as party chief Horst Seehofer, who is also the interior minister in the federal government, sought to protect his party’s right flank against the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a surging far-right party. He took a stand against Merkel over turning back asylum seekers at the German border and threatened to withdraw from the “grand coalition” in Berlin.
It didn’t work. Seehofer had to back down and the anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic AfD entered the Bavarian state parliament for the first time with 10 percent of the vote in last October’s state election. In fact, Seehofer’s strategy backfired badly and delivered the worst result for the CSU since the 1950s.
New leaders to usher in a new partnership
So now the quarrelsome party wants to smooth over its longstanding alliance with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which represents the center-right in the rest of Germany's 16 states. “We want to affirmatively demonstrate the cohesion and common destiny of the CSU and CDU,” said Alexander Dobrindt, head of the CSU group in the Bavarian parliament and a minister in Merkel’s previous cabinet. “Together we want the grand coalition to succeed.”
The New Year does bring the opportunity for new beginnings. Seehofer will pay for his miscalculation by stepping down from the party chairmanship at a special mid-January convention, ending his 10-year reign. Söder, who took over from Seehofer as state premier last year, will succeed him as party chair as well.
The change follows last month’s leadership transition in the CDU, when former Saarland Prime Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer succeeded Merkel as party chair as the chancellor stepped down after 18 years as party chief.
Söder and Kramp-Karrenbauer hardly know each other, so they have a chance to forge a new partnership without any baggage. As a sign of the reconciliation, Kramp-Karrenbauer will show up at the CSU retreat on Saturday. This will be the first visit by the CDU party chair since 2016: Merkel stayed away in recent years because of the tension with her Bavarian allies.
And this is despite the fact that the CSU endorsed Friedrich Merz, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s rival in the race for CDU party chief. Unlike centrist Merkel and her successor, Merz is a staunch conservative, very much like the CSU. He only narrowly lost out to Kramp-Karrenbauer at last month’s party convention.
One bright spot for the CSU is that deputy chairman Manfred Weber, a member of the European Parliament, has been chosen to lead the center-right parties in May’s European elections. Since the center-right generally comes out on top in this vote, it would put Weber in line under the latest EU protocols to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission, by far the most powerful post in the European Union.
Having one of its leaders at the top of the EU institutions would be a great consolation prize for the Bavarian party while it licks its wounds.
In the meantime, the CSU will try to walk the fine line of keeping a separate identity while working in harmony with its bigger sister party. It will maintain a hard line on immigration, insisting on deportation of asylum seekers convicted of crime, and will fight the Social Democrats in the grand coalition on tax policy.
But after all the Sturm and Drang of last year, the Bavarian party, symbolized by a lion, will be purring this year instead of roaring.
Mary-Ann Abdelaziz-Ditzow is an intern at Handelsblatt. Jan Hildebrand is deputy bureau chief in Berlin and Thomas Sigmund is bureau chief. Darrell Delamaide adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Today. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected].