German coalition talks may suffer from CSU power shift

Bavarian allies may cause headache for Merkel after rise of dress-up fan Markus Söder

Bavarian finance minister Markus Söder (right, as Marilyn Monroe)  hopes to leverage his personal popularity in Bavaria to revive the CSU’s fortunes. Photograph: David Ebener/EPA

Bavarian finance minister Markus Söder (right, as Marilyn Monroe) hopes to leverage his personal popularity in Bavaria to revive the CSU’s fortunes. Photograph: David Ebener/EPA

 

Angela Merkel’s complicated game of coalition poker has just been dealt a new wild card.

Some 10 weeks after a disastrous election result, her Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have announced plans to replace the state governor, Horst Seehofer.

After losing a long-running refugee battle with Dr Merkel, Mr Seehofer has agreed to cede the premiership of the influential southern state to a younger rival.

Bavarian finance minister Markus Söder loves to dress up – from Shrek to Homer Simpson – but his longest-running role is as Germany’s “prince of darkness”.

Scrupulous and power-hungry, the 50-year-old’s stridently conservative reputation precedes him. Now he hopes to leverage his personal popularity in Bavaria to revive the CSU’s fortunes next autumn in the state it has ruled continuously for six decades.

Pressure for change has been building since the party under Mr Seehofer lost 10 seats in the September federal election.

Mr Söder said on Monday he was anxious to see the CSU back to its traditional 50 per cent-plus result next year – and indicated he would use all means to do so.

“We have to concentrate on working for our citizens so that Bavaria gets better, and to make clear to citizens that we want this success story to continue,” he said.

After a decade in the starting blocks, Mr Söder will be elected governor of Bavaria, Germany’s richest and most prosperous federal state, in the new year. While Mr Seehofer will stay on as CSU leader, he is a politically diminished figure, and Mr Söder is now a key figure in coalition talks in Berlin.

Playing hardball

After the collapse of so-called “Jamaica” coalition with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and Greens, the CDU/CSU alliance is hoping for a renewed grand coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

But the SPD is playing hardball, refusing to commit to a grand coalition from the start of talks, and pushing for concessions from Merkel on social spending and French euro-zone reform proposals.

While the CSU, with its catch-all political tradition, will look favourably on boosting social spending, its hawkish EU line means it is sceptical of French euro reform ideas.

Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung daily is pessimistic about the rise of Mr Söder, suggesting his victory in the CSU power struggle has the potential to unsettle the delicate political balance in Berlin.

“Söder is a divider … he can bark and bite, but that’s not enough,” warned its lead commentator, Heribert Prantl. “In the CSU it’s like in Edward Albee’s famous play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, where couples devour each other like the leading CSU figures in Munich have done.”

Populist game

By imposing himself on coalition talks in Berlin, Mr Söder will hope to beat the far-right AfD at its own populist game, particularly on the hot-button issue of refugees and asylum. With the far-right party polling a record 14 per cent in Bavaria, analysts suggest Mr Söder may be tempted to mimic the populist-lite campaign run by conservative leader Sebastian Kurz in neighbouring Austria.

After a meeting last April, the two men agreed to work closely together to limit immigration, then as now a primary concern of their respective voters.

If that comes to pass, Dr Merkel may find her Bavarian allies even more of a political headache than the SPD in Berlin.

Two decades ago, as a rising CSU star, Mr Söder noted that successful, independently minded Bavarian politics showed that “nothing unites the CSU as much as when it is against the CDU”.

With her own authority now showing cracks, Angela Merkel can only hope that the chameleon-like Markus Söder has since changed his views.