Normally, every August, German Chancellor Angela Merkel forgets about the business and affairs of state, and heads to the Alps for a hiking holiday. She is a person who cherishes routine and predictability, and she and her husband Joachim Sauer stay in the same town, the same hotel and the same room.
This time around, she will be looking forward to forgetting all about these past few months. The chancellor of Germany for the past 14 years has been tested like never before.
First, it took her six months to hammer out a coalition agreement between her Christian Democrats Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democrats (SPD). Thankfully, that came together in March. But the past two weeks have been unusually unstable for Merkel, largely thanks to that sister party. But she knew exactly what she was getting into — and perhaps welcomed the political posturing with her Bavarian frenemies.
In September, Bavarians head to the polls to elect a new state government. It’s Germany’s largest state and its most powerful in terms of finances and political influences.
As it stands now, the CSU are by far the largest party in the Landtag, the state legislature. It goes into the election with a comfortable 101 seats in the 180-seat parliament, with the other six main political parties there fractured between the Left, Greens and the rest. But the last time there was a state election, in 2013, Alternative for Germany (AfD) — the far-right anti-Islam anti-immigration and anti-European Union party — didn’t exist.
But opinion polls in Bavaria have the leadership of the CSU keeping a close eye on what it believes is a worrying trend three months before Bavarians head to the polls. In March, as Merkel was putting the finishing touches to her grand federal coalition, the polling company Civey found CSU support to be at 44.5 per cent. Now, three months later in its poll released on June 7, the CSU had slipped to 41 per cent. AfD support back in March was at 11.9 per cent and it has risen to just under 14 per cent now. Putting the CSU slippage and the AfD rise together over that times shows a trend that needs to be addressed if not reversed. What’s more, the Civey poll based its findings on samples of more that 5,000 Bavarians on each occasion, and the leadership of the CSU know, as do all leaders of political parties the world over, the larger the sample size, the more representative — and accurate — the survey is.
Most alarming? The last time Bavarians went to the polls in 2013, the CSU scored 48 per cent support.
The Socialists? Support for the SPD was at 14.8 per cent in March and 13.4 per cent in early June.
If the CDU leadership can’t stop the slippage or at least temper the growth of AfD, it risks losing control of the Landtag. Certainly, it will be largest party barring a total collapse of its support, but what happens if it must find a coalition partner to govern? That’s why it’s turning the heat up on Merkel. The current crisis at the heart of the German government isn’t so much about undermining the chancellor — it’s all about protecting its power base in Bavaria and curbing the threat further to its right from AfD.
For now — and until after the key European Union (EU) summit in Brussels on June 28 — Merkel has been given a reprieve.
The Brussels summit will deal with the growing stalemate in the Brexit negotiations between the EU27 and the United Kingdom; will likely approve Greece’s exiting of its third bailout from the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund; a growing refugee crisis as the new Italian government turns away ships carrying hundreds of the desperate and desolate picked up in the Mediterranean Sea; and moves in Poland and Hungary that undermine the independence of the judiciary and free press — key tenets of EU membership. French President Emmanuel Macron will want movement on restricting the EU and the Eurozone, and that new Italian government will want movement too on easing the financial and budgetary rules that cover the 19 members of the EU that use the common currency.
Simply put, the CSU recognises that Merkel has her hands full at the moment, and it’s prudent enough to not let its Bavarian-centric concerns be a distraction to the most-seasoned EU leader in Brussels.
For simply put too, Merkel has long been aware that the CSU wanted her to review Germany’s refugee policies, and it wants more refugees turned away and their asylum bids rejected. When she attended and gave a keynote speech at the CSU annual party conference last December, she heard first hand its concerns over refugees. She even appointed the CSU leader, Horst Seehofer as her Interior Minister — the man responsible for and determining to a large extent what Germany’s refugee policy will be.
What’s more, Seehofer’s elevation to the federal cabinet made way for Marcus Soder as premier of Bavaria — he had been the state’s finance minister — and he’s a man who is not afraid to move the CSU to the right of its base in Bavaria and cut the ground from the AfD.
“Our world is occidental-Christian, Jewish-humanistic,” Soder told the party conference. “Islam has not made an outstanding contribution to Bavaria in the last 200 years and now we have to be clear about the roots of our own land.”
The CSU members in the hall lapped it up. “Those who believe that Sharia is more important than the Bavarian constitution are entitled to that opinion ... but they don’t have to have it here in Germany,” he said. “Anyone who comes to us has to adapt to our values, manners and customs, and not the other way around.”
With 14 years of federal leadership under her belt, Merkel isn’t about to be set adrift by her Bavarian frenemies. As soon as the Brussels summit is out of the way and her focus is back wholly on German issues, she’ll give ground on refugees. The CSU will score a victory at the federal level on Merkel’s terms, will take that back to its party base in Bavaria, and will win the next state election because of it.
And Merkel will enjoy her Alpine hiking holiday as well.