For decades, Bavaria's Christian Social Union seemed more like a royal family than a political party. The leadership may have changed, but the reins of power tended to remain in the family, being handed from one carefully groomed successor to the next.
But from the moment the polls closed on Sunday evening following state parliamentary elections, it took less than 48 hours for the dynasty to come crashing down. The CSU managed 43.4 percent of the vote, but as impressive as that total may look from the outside, it is a far cry from the absolute majority to which the party has become accustomed. On Tuesday, party chair Erwin Huber announced he was resigning, effective in late October when the party -- the Bavarian sister to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union -- comes together to discuss the way forward.
"I will make my position as chair of the CSU available," Huber told reporters on Tuesday. The move, said Huber, who was in office for just 13 months, was intended "to make way for a renewal at the top of the party."
In addition to Huber, CSU General Secretary Christine Haderthauer will likewise be stepping down. And pressure is growing for Bavarian Governor Günther Beckstein to take his share of responsibility for the party's election-day debacle. Party leaders say that Federal Agriculture Minister Horst Seehofer will jump into the void left by Huber's departure.
The change is one which promises to dramatically alter the party. For decades, the CSU has reigned virtually unopposed in Bavaria. As recently as 2003, the CSU won more than 60 percent of the state vote. Prior to Sunday, the party had enjoyed an absolute majority since 1962.
That domination had led to an orderly and largely preordained succession in the party leadership. CSU don Franz Josef Strauss, who led the party from 1961 to 1988, handed the baton to Theo Waigel before Edmund Stoiber, groomed as a young politician by Strauss, rose to the top. When Stoiber resigned amid growing criticism in 2007, long-time party honcho Huber slipped into the office behind him -- the result of an agreement between Huber and Beckstein that was kept secret from Seehofer.
Huber did what he could to modernize the party in his brief stint at the top. In his resignation speech on Tuesday, he spoke of his attempts to promote younger members and to give women more positions of leadership within the CSU. But he and Beckstein also presided over a period of uncharacteristically shaky leadership which saw the Bavarian state bank BayernLB post €4.3 billion writedowns in April and the cancellation of a high-profile magnetic-levitation train line from the Munich airport to the train station this spring.
And now, it looks as though Seehofer will be the one to guide the party into a new era. Younger party members have let it be known that they will expect even more opportunities to advance into the party's upper echelons. More than that, though, the new CSU leadership will have to find a way to deal with a political challenge it has been able to avoid for more than four decades: a coalition government and a functioning opposition.
cgh -- with wire reports