'Achilles Heel' Merkel's Conservatives Divided as Campaign Begins

With the Social Democrats surging in the polls after choosing Martin Schulz as their candidate for chancellor, the German election campaign has begun. But Chancellor Merkel's conservatives are deeply divided -- and trying in vain to paper over their differences.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer trying to look like they like each other on Monday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer trying to look like they like each other on Monday.

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There was a moment on Monday, during the joint press conference held by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer, when the facade of banal bonhomie almost came crashing down. Following two days of meetings between the party leaders of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and Seehofer's Christian Social Union, the CDU's Bavarian sister party -- a conclave called to smooth over deep differences between the two parties ahead of this year's general election scheduled for Sept. 24 -- a journalist wanted to know if the two were planning any joint appearances on the campaign trail.

Merkel didn't have a clear answer to the question. They hadn't actually discussed that aspect, she muttered, adding "I don't rule out that we will appear together from time to time." Seehofer hurried to expand on the chancellor's answer: "I very much expect that we will."

It was a moment that made the two leading conservatives look less like highly motivated members of the same political team and more like a deeply divided couple who have decided to give their marriage one last chance for the sake of the children.

With the CDU and CSU joining together in German parliament as a joint conservative block, the two parties have come to the realization that it is time to paper over their months of public bickering over refugee and immigration policy for the sake of the campaign -- no matter how flimsy that paper might be.

And with Martin Schulz, the former European Parliament president, having been anointed as the Social Democratic candidate for chancellor, doing so has become more urgent than ever for the parties. Schulz's return to Berlin has energized the SPD and for the first time in several years, Merkel is no longer looking unbeatable. The most recent poll, conducted on behalf of German public broadcaster ARD, has shown that support for the center-left party has spiked and the conservative's lead has shrunk from 17 percentage points a month ago to just six points now. Were Germans able to vote for their chancellor directly, instead of merely being asked to vote for parties, surveys show that Schulz would win by 16 percentage points. A breath of change is blowing through the country.


Given this reality, the dispute between Merkel and Seehofer is no longer just a political sideshow. It has become existential. But divisions run deep and they won't be easy to overcome. If Seehofer nestles up too close to the chancellor, he will lose the support of his own party. And Merkel herself can likewise not count on the resolute support of the CDU grassroots.

For months, Merkel and Seehofer have tried to create the impression that their differences have largely been ironed out and that really only one question is left to resolve: that of the upper limit on the number of refugees to be allowed into the country each year. Following the huge wave of refugees that arrived in Germany in fall 2015, Seehofer demanded that the country introduce a ceiling of 200,000 per year. Merkel, however, has steadfastly declined to consider such a limit. For one, she argues that a hard cap doesn't do justice to the fluctuating numbers of refugees who need assistance. For another, she fears the images that might be generated were Germany to ever have to enforce the ceiling. Current rates of refugee arrivals to the country are far below the ceiling demanded by Seehofer.

But Merkel and large parts of Seehofer's CSU aren't just deeply divided by the refugee issue. The chasm is just as deep in another area that has dominated the political discussion in recent weeks: foreign policy. That has long been true when it comes to determining the correct approach to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, for example, or to Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is now also true of relations with U.S. President Donald Trump.

How should Germany approach the unpredictable real-estate tycoon in the Oval Office? With respect for his "completely different style of politics," as Seehofer has suggested? Or as the self-confident voice of reason, continually reminding Trump of the "foundation of common values," as Merkel has thus far done?

Division of Labor

The two sister parties have long been able to cope quite well with a certain amount of dissent. Indeed, the different roles they play in German political life have allowed them to find support from a broad spectrum of voters. The CSU has a history of appealing to the far-right fringe, meaning that ultra-conservative voters, even outside of Bavaria, could be confident that their interests would be represented in a conservative-led government. Merkel's more liberal profile, meanwhile, has meant greater support in the country's urban centers -- and greater support for the CSU in Bavarian cities.

But this division of labor is no longer working. The conflict over refugee policy has hurt the conservatives. An advisor close to Merkel says it has become a "heavy burden," while sources in the Chancellery say that the ongoing disagreement with the CSU is the conservatives' "Achilles heel" in the campaign and that the SPD can reignite the battle at any time.

The conservatives, of course, are doing all they can to present a united front. That was the point of the meeting of senior CSU and CDU members on Sunday and Monday and that is the message being repeated frequently by senior conservatives. "Unity will follow from clear positions, and with unity comes success," says Jens Spahn, a member of the CDU executive committee. Senior CDU politician Norbert Röttgen, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German parliament, likewise rejects the division-of-labor concept. "What is necessary is clarity. We must confront our adversaries with energy and determination."

Until Martin Schulz's return to the German political stage, conservatives had thought that their primary opponent during the election campaign would be the right-wing populist AfD. The SPD, most figured, would run an unmotivated campaign behind the leadership of erstwhile party leader Sigmar Gabriel. Suddenly, though, with Gabriel having stepped down to make way for Schulz, Merkel is facing an SPD candidate who is both popular and eager to take advantage of the conservative split. "The divisions between the CDU and CSU have simply become too great," Schulz told SPIEGEL in a recent interview.

Conservatives have become unsettled by the sudden hype surrounding Schulz's candidacy. Compounding the uncertainty is the fact that many aren't particularly familiar with Schulz, since he has spent much of his political career in Brussels. Manfred Weber, a CSU member of European Parliament, was even asked to brief CSU leadership recently about Schulz and what he stands for.


The CDU and CSU are now hoping that the excitement over Schulz will quickly subside as soon as he begins taking concrete stances on the most important campaign issues. Having only announced his candidacy at the end of January, he hasn't thus far presented German conservatives with any open flanks that could be attacked, says CDU General Secretary Peter Tauber. "Candidate Schulz hasn't yet said anything concrete at all," his CSU ally Andreas Scheuer agrees. "When he is forced to be more specific, a sobering hangover will quickly follow on the heels of the current intoxication."

For conservatives, however, the hangover has already set it. When Seehofer announced his party's support for Merkel's re-election campaign -- something he had been threatening for months to withhold -- CSU voters flooded his Facebook page with furious comments. Some supporters even called CSU headquarters to complain about the party head's "capitulation."

"On the issue of refugee policy, we riled people up to a certain extent," admitted one member of the CSU executive council. Now, he continued, the party will have to somehow reel them back in.

Furthermore, it isn't entirely clear that a few days of joint meetings will be enough to heal the personal rift that has driven Seehofer and Merkel apart in recent months. During the height of their bickering, Seehofer discontinued a long-standing tradition and decided not to invite Merkel to his party's annual convention. There was also rampant speculation that the CSU might ultimately decide to present its own candidate for chancellor in opposition to Merkel, which would have essentially marked the end of the parties' postwar alliance.

And now, even if the number of refugees arriving in Germany has sunk dramatically, a new pressure point has developed: Donald Trump. Merkel and Seehofer have developed contrasting strategies when it comes to both the tone and content of their statements regarding the new American president.

Sign at a protest in London
imago/ Bettina Strenske

Sign at a protest in London

Following Trump's election, Seehofer -- who has often been accused of tending toward populism himself -- could hardly send his congratulations across the Atlantic fast enough. In his message, he noted that U.S. presidents are always welcome in Bavaria and even during the campaign he had sought to establish contacts with Trump via German business leaders who support the CSU. The rules of political protocol are likely all that kept Seehofer from immediately boarding a plane to visit Trump in the U.S.

Merkel's Careful Approach to Trump

Merkel, by contrast, combined her initial statement to the newly elected Trump with a minor dressing-down. She said she is happy to work with Trump, but only on the basis of values such as democracy, freedom and the respect for the dignity of every individual, regardless of skin color, sexual orientation or religion. To CSU ears, the statement sounded presumptuous and unnecessarily aggressive. Within the Bavarian party, there is a certain amount of sympathy for the populist in the White House, both for his political style and for his policy content. Hans-Peter Friedrich, floor leader for the CSU in the German parliament, took to Twitter with his admiration of Trump's message of "America First" and demanded that Berlin adopt a stance of "Germany First."

CSU head Seehofer likewise praised Trump's assertiveness: "The entire world seems amazed that an elected politician is immediately fulfilling his campaign promises after his election," he said in a meeting with party leaders. In an interview with the weekly tabloid Bild am Sonntag, Seehofer praised the way Trump was implementing "his campaign promises point by point with energy and speed" -- though he did allow that he wasn't enamored of all of Trump's positions. Still, Seehofer's expression of admiration carried a hint of contempt for the arduous process of cultivating democratic consensus. The subtext was clear: a top-down approach was preferable.

Unfortunately for Seehofer, even as the paper was going to print, a wave of indignation was crashing over Trump's most recently fulfilled campaign pledge: the presidential decree banning entry to the U.S. for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries. Even for many Trump fans, the executive order went too far.

The chancellor, meanwhile, has been careful to walk a tightrope between cooperation and criticism. After Merkel spoke on the phone with Trump just over a week ago, she thought it important to release a joint statement with the U.S. president. Because Trump has a different interpretation of the Geneva refugee convention, Trump's travel ban wasn't even mentioned in the statement. But on the next day, Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert released a second, more critical statement.

Merkel's trans-Atlantic coordinator, Jürgen Hardt, meanwhile, has demanded a clear stance on the U.S. president. "Trump is a practitioner of knee-jerk reactions and populism. It is a political style that I don't like, and I doubt the chancellor does either," he says.

Sympathy for Strong Leaders

Trump's politics are controversial even within the CSU. Deputy party head Manfred Weber, for example, would like to see the European Union reject Trump's designated EU ambassador, Ted Malloch, because of his open hostility to the bloc. But Horst Seehofer himself has long shown a certain amount of sympathy for heavy-handed leaders, autocrats and EU skeptics. Last year, he held a high profile meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, one of Merkel's most vocal critics on refugee policy. In addition, he has fawned over Russian President Vladimir Putin for months, even meeting him in the Kremlin in early 2016 and voicing his support for the easing of European sanctions implemented in response to Russia's aggression toward Ukraine. In a press conference, he referred to Putin as "noble" and played down the Ukraine conflict, in which almost 10,000 people have thus far lost their lives, as a "skirmish."

A "reduction of Russian sanctions" is likewise anchored in a CSU foreign policy position paper. The penalties should not, the paper emphasizes, become a permanent state of affairs. "Block thinking is no longer contemporary," the paper notes.

German Agricultural Minister Christian Schmidt, a member of the CSU, even went so far recently as to circumvent the sanctions. At the International Green Week convention in Berlin, he received his Russian counterpart Alexander Tkachev -- despite the fact that the Putin confidante has been slapped with an EU travel ban and may only enter the European Union for G-20 minister meetings.

The CSU, of course, has been eager to play down its foreign policy differences with Merkel as well. One executive council member dismissed the issue by saying that economic sanctions are "a marginal issue in election campaigns." No German voter, he said, would make his or her vote dependent on the issue.

It does, however, present yet another open flank for the SPD and candidate Schulz to attack. And the center-left challenger is certain to take full advantage. Merkel herself said on Monday that the coming campaign promises to be "the most difficult that I have ever experienced," making unity of the kind the two parties are now trying to present all the more important.

But it won't be easy. After all, it was only in December that Seehofer repeated his threat to go into the opposition should an immigration ceiling not be anchored into the coalition agreement in the event of a conservative victory. The marriage counselling still has a long way to go.


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