A Powerhouse in Decline Election Threatens to Erode Bavarian Conservatives' National Role

For decades, politics in Bavaria have been synonymous with the Christian Social Union, the state's sister party to Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. When voters go to the polls on Sunday, the party could lose an absolute majority it has maintained for decades. Is this the end of Germany's last bastion of old-fashioned conservatism?

By and

The Last Prost? Bavarian Governor Günther Beckstein's party is close to losing its absolute majority in parliament during state elections this weekend.
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The Last Prost? Bavarian Governor Günther Beckstein's party is close to losing its absolute majority in parliament during state elections this weekend.

The name escaped him for a moment. Former Bavarian Governor Edmund Stoiber was standing at the microphone in front of 4,000 people -- and 4,000 beer steins -- campaigning for his party, the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). But then Stoiber, for the life of him, simply could not remember the name -- of none other than his successor, the current Bavarian governor.

The Bavarian way of life must continue to be associated with the CSU, Stoiber had proclaimed to his audience in a large tent in the city of Freising, north of Munich, drawing the unusually long index finger of his right hand through the air like a baton.

"If we manage to do that, as Franz Josef Strauss, Max Streibl and I have done, we will remain successful. And I hope that my successors (CSU party boss) Erwin Huber and uh, uh," Stoiber paused, his index finger suspended in mid-air, and only after a few embarrassing moments did his finger complete its trajectory, as he continued, "uh, Günther Beckstein, will enjoy the same success."

Stoiber couldn't have found a better way to make it clear to his audience that his party lacks something: leadership, of the kind exuded by its legendary leaders of the past, men practically bursting with self-confidence. Instead, the party's current leaders can count themselves lucky if someone manages to remember their names.

Stoiber himself garnered an impressive 60.7 percent of the vote for the CSU in the last state parliamentary election five years ago. Now, with the next election just a week away, the CSU must prepare itself for the worst result in decades. According to a poll conducted by Infratest dimap, the party was only at 47 percent last week. The last bastion of political conservatism in Germany is teetering. "We shouldn't be slinking around with drooping shoulders," Stoiber said, glancing at his successors.

But Stoiber was just warming up. He turned his attention to the CSU's sister party. Not much could be expected of the CDU, Stoiber complained, saying that Merkel's party, as part of a grand coalition government with the center-left Social Democrats, had lost a lot of its substance.

And then Stoiber decided to show Huber, Beckstein and, last but not least, the complacent chancellor, how things could be going. Puffing his chest out, he showed them how to campaign, even in difficult times, how to talk about success -- and how to get an audience fired up.

With the flags of Bavaria and Germany hanging behind him, Stoiber ended his speech to a resounding drum roll of applause. For the space of one evening, the CSU's perfect world still seemed to exist.

The people in the tent howled and clapped, stamped their feet and squealed with delight, while the air high up near the top of the tent became thick with melancholy. Stoiber's appearance in Freising was like a spectacle from another time. A time when the CDU/CSU still had a recognizable profile, when its governors were still people to be reckoned with and who commanded attention, and when Bavarian was still a rock-solid conservative base for the two sister parties.

But things have changed for the CDU/CSU. Not only is its Bavarian stronghold beginning to crumble, but the face of the CDU has changed under Merkel. Quietly and surreptitiously, the chancellor has spent the past three years reshaping the party into what she believes it should be.

As a result, the CDU and CSU have been turned into a political alliance whose center of power lies in the federal government and not the states, and one that is no longer dominated by conservatism. Merkel has freed the party of many of its antiquated positions, but at the same time she has deprived it of all things distinctive, from positions to people. These days, CDU/CSU has become conservative light, as bland as low-fat yoghurt.

But in the shadow of the Bavarian election, skepticism is growing within the CDU/CSU over whether Merkel's quiet revolution is doing more harm than good. The true dilemma of Merkel's party only became apparent after a shakeup within the leadership of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). After the departure of party leader Kurt Beck, who was in over his head, the SPD's prospects for next year's elections to the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, have improved. Unlike Beck, who had alienated the political center, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, his party's candidate for the chancellorship, and designated party leader Franz Müntefering are targeting the political center for votes.

Over at the CDU and CSU, politicians look on with envy at the new distribution of roles at the head of the SPD. While Foreign Minister Steinmeier can continue to capitalize on his position as an elegant statesman during the election year, Müntefering will attempt to fire up the party and launch attacks on political adversaries.

Graphic: Waning popularity

Graphic: Waning popularity

The CDU/CSU only has stateswoman Merkel to offer. Unfortunately, the two parties currently lack someone who can perform Müntefering's role in firing up support for the party. Even worse, they don't even have a candidate. Merkel is unwilling to share power with anyone, and even at party headquarters and within her party's parliamentary group, she has tolerated service personnel at best. Since Roland Koch -- once a powerful political rival of Merkel's -- recently failed in state elections in Hesse. Another potentially powerful figure, Lower-Saxony Governor Christian Wulff, has expressed little interest in challenging Merkel's political course. And that means there are no longer any powerful CDU/CSU governors to counterbalance the chancellor's political power within the party. In earlier times, though, governors wielded considerable power within the national party.

Even Jürgen Rüttgers, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, seems dull and mouse-like by comparison. A week ago Tuesday, he was standing next to Merkel in the garden of his state's office in Berlin, where North Rhine-Westphalia was sponsoring a "Festival of the West." "We want to celebrate a fantastic evening, which is why Chancellor Angela Merkel is here," Rüttgers said. "In fact, we couldn't even have a fantastic evening without Angela Merkel."

The line would have been funny a few years ago, but last week it was meant in all seriousness. For years, Merkel has had to fight for recognition within her own party. Conservatives, like former senior party official and financial expert Friedrich Merz, felt that a woman from eastern Germany was not the right person to head the CDU. In Bavaria, she was derided as the "Zonenwachtel," or "quail from the (eastern) zone."

But since she has been chancellor, Merkel has solidified her position. She has deliberately eliminated potential adversaries in her own party, unless they eliminated themselves first, as Stoiber did. In the CDU, in her way of thinking, only the chancellor can shine, while everyone else is strictly barred from attracting too much attention.

If there is any sign of discontent, it is coming from only a few members of the middle class, because Merkel talks a lot about solidarity with the weak while saying little about reforms. She also pays little attention to older conservatives like Jörg Schönbohm, the interior minister of the state of Brandenburg, who disapproves of her clinging to the zeitgeist. But such criticism poses no threat to Merkel, who has filled all key positions in Berlin with loyal followers.

What this leads to was evident in last week's budget debate. In the past, politicians like Friedrich Merz and Horst Seehofer would discuss important issues like healthcare and finance in these debates. They were known entities, and they brought together voters from different factions within the CDU/CSU.

But this time, instead of Merz and Seehofer, it was handled by two lower-level leaders in parliament. Both men, Michael Meister and Wolfgang Zöller, are deputy parliamentary group leaders, perfectly pleasant men, but more or less unknown.

In theory, the governors could help boost the CDU/CSU's profile. They could establish positions behind which the party could unite, thereby contributing a new sense of community.

But the truth is that Merkel has also forced the governors to toe her line. At the beginning of the CDU/SPD Grand Coalition government, Peter Müller, the governor of the western state of Saarland, proposed a division of labor to the new chancellor. Merkel would sell the policies of the federal government, while the governors would ensure that the CDU's positions remained recognizable. But Merkel turned down the proposal, interpreting any criticism of government policy as a personal attack.

At a party convention in Dresden two years ago, Rüttgers, Wulff and Koch argued over reforms to the unemployment compensation system. Merkel let the men fight it out. In the end, the three received miserable results in the selection of the deputy party leaders. Calm has prevailed since then.

Normally, the CDU's profile problem wouldn't necessarily be dramatic for the CDU/CSU as a whole. Until now, there was always a corrective in southern Germany that gave a voice to those within the CDU who suffered as a result of their own party: the CSU.

In Strauss' and Stoiber's days, the Bavarian sister party was the bulky, awkward counterpart of the big CDU. It would speak up when a Christian Democratic chancellor in the capital deviated from the conservative path. The CSU offered a home, under the umbrella of the CDU/CSU, to those who felt homeless in the CDU -- even outside Bavaria.

But now the corrective is ailing. The CSU threatens to lose its absolute majority, and the previously unthinkable could become a reality: the CSU having to enter into a coalition government with another party. It would also spell the loss of the last constant in a political landscape that has been struck by powerful quakes in recent years.


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