Bavarian curtain-raiser causing headaches for Merkel strategists

CSU’s winning formula leaves little hope for SPD rivals

Confident swagger: Bavarian state premier and leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU) Horst Seehofer at his party’s final election campaign meeting in Munich on Thursday. Photograph: Michaela Rehle.

Confident swagger: Bavarian state premier and leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU) Horst Seehofer at his party’s final election campaign meeting in Munich on Thursday. Photograph: Michaela Rehle.


Ask a Bavarian about their homeland and you’re likely to hear that theirs is the better Germany. The land of King Ludwig and Oktoberfest, beer and BMWs has a booming economy and a jobless rate half the national average.

As Germany’s economic and political heavyweight, tomorrow’s state election will have a sizeable knock-on effect on next weekend’s federal elections.

There’s no doubt about the winner: the Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

The CSU has held office in Bavaria for six decades with politics that crosses conservative social policy with pragmatic, often left-wing economics.

The winning formula – dubbed “laptops and Lederhosen” – has left the CSU with almost half the vote.

“We have the lowest youth unemployment in Europe, ” said CSU leader Horst Seehofer to cheering supporters in Munich’s Olympic Park on Thursday. “Nowhere in Europe does the younger generation have better chances than with us in Bavaria.”

For decades the CSU has presented itself as defender of the Bavarian tradition and culture it has co-opted, leaving little hope for his challenger Christian Ude, the Social Democrat (SPD) mayor of Munich.

“The Social Democrats here are sober and matter-of-fact – which is not how the average Bavarian perceives themselves,” said Dr Reinhardt Rummel, political scientist at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU).

“The CSU are untouchable because they are inseparable from the Bavarian identity, combining tradition and farmer shrewdness.”

Lurking behind the bristling confidence and occasionally arrogant swagger, however, is a creeping insecurity.

Bavaria’s CSU was once, under its strong-willed and pugnacious leader Franz-Josef Strauss, a headache for every German chancellor.

But it’s a long time since Mr Seehofer caused Angela Merkel any sleepless nights. His biggest election policy – a plan to toll foreign cars on German motorways – was dismissed as unworkable by Dr Merkel and illegal by his critics.

Even if the CSU is less of a problem, tomorrow’s result is causing no end of headaches for Merkel strategists. Regardless of what happens, they fear Bavaria could have negative consequences for the German leader’s own re-election bid.

A strong result for the CSU, for instance, could demobilise Merkel supporters already confident of victory next weekend.

Then there is the complicating factor of two small Eurosceptic parties: the Free Voters (FW) and the Alternative for Germany (AfD). With their anti-bailout policies they are likely to gnaw away at core support for the CSU and its Free Democrat (FDP) coalition partner.

If, as final polls suggest, the FDP fails to return to the Bavarian parliament, it leaves the CSU without a natural coalition partner in Bavaria. Worse: it could trigger a last-minute shift of support to the FDP next Sunday from CDU voters anxious to save their preferred coalition party from disaster. Last January a similar show of solidarity cost the CDU badly-needed votes – and control of Lower Saxony.

To see off its smaller Eurosceptic challengers in this campaign, the CSU has presented Bavaria as an “island of stability” being unfairly tapped as paymaster in Germany and Europe.

Radical reform
At home, Mr Seehofer has promised radical reform of a transfer system between richer and poorer federal states that cost Bavaria, as a contributor state, almost €4 billion last year.

He never mentions how for 36 years – half of the fund’s history – Bavaria was a net recipient at a time when both it and Germany were far less prosperous than today.

Selective perception also extends to Bavaria’s take on the financial and euro crisis. As Germany’s southernmost major city, Bavarians like to think of their capital, Munich, as the northernmost city in Italy. But they are quick to shrug off any dolce vita notions when it comes to economics. Horst Seehofer’s foot soldiers are Germany’s most reliable source of populist crisis quotes.

One suggested Greece should be “cut loose” from the euro zone as “an example to others”; another viewed ECB bond-buying as proof that central bank president Mario Draghi was the euro zone’s “counterfeiter-in-chief”.

Mr Seehofer, for all his sound and fury at bailing out others, has little to say about the €5 billion bailout bill forced on taxpayers for gross mismanagement at his state bank, Bayern LB.

Despite the bank bailout and countless CSU sleaze scandals, however, Mr Seehofer can be confident that Catholic Bavarian voters will be a forgiving lot tomorrow.