CSU in Crisis What Went Wrong for Bavarian Conservatives?

For decades, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria has exerted outsized influence on Germany's national political stage. With state elections approaching on Sunday, however, the CSU finds itself embroiled in crisis. What went wrong?

A pin on a Bavarian hat depicting Franz Josef Strauss.
imago / Sebastian Widmann

A pin on a Bavarian hat depicting Franz Josef Strauss.


The mausoleum of Franz Josef Strauss lies at the back of the cemetery, in the shadow of the monastery chapel in Rott am Inn, a tiny village just southeast of Munich. Visitors have to climb a couple of steps to reach the spot where Bavaria's modern-day father has been laid to rest. He is an almost mythical figure for the state -- and even more important for the state's most important political party, the Christian Social Union. Indeed, current CSU éminence grise Peter Gauweiler says of the spot: "It is where our heart is buried."

Cobwebs cling to the dark corners of the room before the alcove where Strauss and his wife Marianne are interred. In the corner is a dehumidifier that looks as though it may have been there since Strauss' death on Oct. 3, 1988. The floor could use a sweep.

A couple of days earlier, "Dr. h.c. Franz Josef Strauß," as the concrete inscription reads, would have turned 103. Two wreathes with ribbons lay in front of the crypt in early September, one of them from the "state capital of Munich" and another with the dedication: "In love, your children." No wreath arrived for his birthday from the CSU itself.

An elderly couple enters the mausoleum. They used to know Strauss personally, back when he lived in Rott am Inn. Indeed, he and Marianne were married right here in the monastery chapel. The couple stands silently before the grave, their heads bowed and hands folded in front of them. "Thank God that he didn't have to live through all this," says the man once they have exited the mausoleum.

The CSU is going through a rough patch. Suddenly, a disaster that Strauss never would have thought possible has become quite likely: a plunge below 40 percent when Bavarian voters go to the polls on Oct. 14. Current public opinion surveys have the CSU at around 33 percent. For a party that has spent decades -- minus a brief interlude 10 years ago -- ruling with an absolute majority in the state, 33 percent is a catastrophe. It is comparable to FC Bayern coming in last in the Bundesliga and being relegated to the second league.

Nothing, in other words, is like it used to be, resulting in a party that has become deeply insecure. And that insecurity has frequently expressed itself in abnormal behavior, particularly from party head Horst Seehofer, the drama queen of the CSU. The party has realized that after years of omnipotence, it is losing its absolute grip on power in the state. But it doesn't yet understand what went wrong or how.

It is impossible to write a story about the CSU in 2018 without it turning into a tragedy. The party grew to become the strongest and most idiosyncratic political movement in the country, but now it is becoming apparent that even the success of the Christian Social Union is finite. The causes for that are myriad, and they go far beyond the peculiarities of Seehofer.

Not all of the blame lies with the party itself, though much of it does. It managed to change the state so dramatically that even the CSU no longer quite feels at home in Bavaria.


"Adelgundis, where is Strauss' watch?," Wilfried Scharnagl calls out.

"Upstairs," she calls back.

"Could you please bring it?"

A few minutes later, Ms. Scharnagl appears in the dining room with the watch and sets it on the table in front of him. Scharnagl, 79, looks at it rapturously.

For 24 years, he was editor-in-chief of the CSU party newspaper Bayernkurier and Strauss himself used to say: "What I think, Scharnagl writes." Scharnagl picks up the watch that Strauss wore so often, a silver Omega Speedmaster Professional. After Strauss' death, his children presented it to Scharnagl for his birthday.

Scharnagl tears up. "I always have to fight against the emotion. There is this deep sadness," he says. "I still haven't gotten over the loss, after 30 years."

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One reason that Strauss is still so deeply loved in Bavaria is because he did more than almost anyone else to transform Bavaria from a poor, agrarian state where nearly half the people worked in farming after World War II into the industrial powerhouse it is today. It was once Germany's poorest state. Today, it is the wealthiest.

Dozens of crucifixes of all different kinds hang on the walls of the Scharnagls' dining room. Behind him sit two neatly dressed dolls on a chair. It is as though time has stood still.

"The development of my party makes me sad," Scharnagl says. He speaks slowly and quietly. He has had a difficult couple of years involving broken bones and a stroke. "The CSU is a huge part of my life." Even now, he still makes his way to party leadership committee meetings.

'Completely Absurd'

When he looks at how successful the state has been, the official statistics, the economic growth and the unemployment rate of just 2.8 percent. When he sees how beautiful and attractive Bavaria is, so attractive that everyone wants to move there. When he sees all that, he can't believe that his beloved CSU currently finds itself in the deepest crisis in its history. "It is completely absurd," he says.

Scharnagl has gone through a lot with his party, including donation scandals, corruption scandals and the shockingly low 43.4 percent result it obtained in 2008 -- its lowest ever -- which forced it into a coalition for the first time in 40 years. "But a result in the 30s? That is inconceivable." He shakes his head.

The Bavarian economy is doing well, but the CSU is not.

The Bavarian economy is doing well, but the CSU is not.

"How can it be that the CSU isn't in better shape given the fantastic current conditions? How can it be that our survey numbers are so grotesque? I don't get it. I don't understand people."

Like many in the party's leadership, Scharnagl is frustrated by what he sees as the ingratitude of Bavarian voters. And he also hasa problem with Chancellor Angela Merkel. Even though she is head of the Christian Democratic Union, nominally the CSU's big sister on the national stage, many CSU leaders believe she is primarily to blame for their party's misery. Horst Seehofer, Scharnagl says, was right when he said the migration question was the mother of all political problems. "But Merkel doesn't get it. And she never will," Scharnagl says. "Ms. Merkel is a disaster. She is a disaster for German conservatives."

Unfortunately, he continues, the CSU has become "an obedient party." It doesn't have the courage, he says, to risk a break with its sister party. "There needs to be a confrontation but there isn't one. It is grotesque how Merkel and Seehofer always grit their teeth and reach an agreement." Scharnagl has no idea what to do. In fact, nobody knows how to escape the current dilemma. Nobody.


That dilemma is not immediately apparent if you take a drive through small-town Bavaria. The quaint villages and onion-domed churches look just as bucolic as they always have. But recently, the pollsters at Forschungsgruppe Wahlen took a closer look at the views of Bavarian voters on issues from foreigner integration to renewable energies, from childcare to equal rights for gays and lesbians. What they found is that traditional positions no longer receive majority support on any single issue.

The phenomenon of changing societal values is continuing apace in Bavaria as well -- secularization, individualization, egocentrism and differentiation. The Bavarian populace is much more modern, much more German than the CSU would like to believe.

In 1945, the first time that the Bavarian governor was a member of the CSU, the state had a population of 8 million people. Today, it is 13 million. People have moved to Bavaria from across Germany, attracted by the prospect of work and prosperity -- and not necessarily because of any particular affinity for the CSU. The party, in other words, is something of a victim of its own success.

The CSU is fond of macho, type-A personalities like Markus Söder. But the party is facing a stiff challenge from the Green Party on the left and the AfD on the right.

The CSU is fond of macho, type-A personalities like Markus Söder. But the party is facing a stiff challenge from the Green Party on the left and the AfD on the right.

The conditions have become more difficult, says current Bavarian Governor Markus Söder during an interview about the development of his party. "Economic success has attracted many people who aren't particularly familiar with the Bavarian myth." He recalls the former location of CSU party headquarters on Nymphenburger Strasse in a middle-class neighborhood in the heart of the city. Today, it can be found on Mies-van-der-Rohe-Strasse. Even the name itself, Söder says, tells you a lot. Sure, the Bavarian governor allows, Mies-van-der-Rohe was an internationally respected architect. But, he adds, "the entire district is cosmopolitan. Employees of global companies work here. They are people who have worked in Berlin, London or the United States. You can't assume that they have an understanding for what makes Bavaria special, the Bavaria gene."

'Increasingly Radical'

All of Europe has changed, Söder says. Bavaria cannot simply isolate itself from international trends. Even when Strauss was still around, he says, the CSU was rarely more than 10 percent higher than the average support received by conservatives nationwide. "Name me one country in Europe that has seen the stability that Bavaria has."

He lists off a number of reasons for the party's current struggles, none of which have anything to do with him -- even though he happens to be the CSU's lead candidate in this Sunday's vote, and goes into some detail when talking about the changes caused by the internet and technological advancements. The physical presence of the CSU, the analog element of the party, he says, is still intact. The difference is that there is now a digital element as well. "Digitalization has naturally led to changes in democracy. Echo chambers and filter bubbles have developed that reaffirm themselves emotionally with fake news. Over the long term, they will become increasingly radical."

In contrast to the analog world, the digital world is more difficult to shape and steer. That has led to a loss of control that has presented huge hurdles to Söder's party. As such, it is fair to say the CSU is one of the losers of technological advancement.

"Unfortunately, digitalization has led to distorted perceptions," Söder says. "It is a paradox that on the one hand, we are better off than ever before, while on the other, we are more divided than we have ever been. There needs to be an anchor, a direction, a compass. That is what the governor has to provide." His goal is to achieve the best possible result for his party despite the difficult conditions.


It's a sunny morning in September and the CSU is hosting a Sunday get-together at the Ebersberger Alm, an inn just east of Munich. Somebody has installed the party's powder-blue letters in the meadow out front -- and it all looks so harmonious, as though everything belongs together. Almost as if it wasn't God that created this beautiful natural setting but the CSU itself.

Sometimes, the party is still able to stage this wonderful symbiosis between the landscape and the party, the fusion of attractive mountains with less attractive politicians. "Upper Bavaria is beautiful. Bavaria is beautiful," calls out to those who have turned up for the event. "There is no more beautiful place in the world." It is somehow fascinating how he can say such a thing without even a trace of irony.

The inn is packed with guests, many of the women are wearing dirndls while the men are dressed in traditional Bavarian jackets. But the tables are loaded down with more coffee cups and water glasses than beer mugs. That, too, is a break with the past.

Söder speaks of the "great personalities" who have led the state of Bavaria in the past. He speaks of Strauss and of Edmund Stoiber, who governed the state from 1993 to 2007. And, of course, he talks about himself as well. This CSU gene has apparently been passed down, he says. "Just like Coca-Cola, we have a secret formula that only the bosses know. The CSU gene." He doesn't mention the name Seehofer. Not even once.

When guests get the opportunity to ask questions later, they aren't particularly interested in the Bavarian governor's genes. A man wearing a tradition Bavarian hat stands up. "We met at the pub yesterday and Alois had an idea for how to fix the apartment shortage," he says. "It wasn't bad." The reason for the shortage, the man continues, is primarily because of the large companies that have moved to the region, bringing their own people and driving up prices. "When a large company comes and hires 1,000 people then it should be required to build apartments for at least 500 people. I think the idea is pretty good." The man's proposal is met with loud applause. But he doesn't get a particularly satisfactory answer from Söder.

Political Decisions

The next to ask a question is a mother of two. She wants to know how Söder plans to improve daycare options. "In elementary schools, classes are often over by 11:30. For parents, that is really difficult."

In Bavaria, many police officers, nurses and commuter train drivers can no longer afford to live in many cities -- places that would no longer function without the work they do. It's a problem not just in Munich, but also in smaller Bavarian cities like Bamberg, Nuremberg and Erlangen.

None of this happened overnight. It, too, is the result of political decisions -- or, to be more precise, a lack of political decisions. "Such a thing would never have happened under the watch of Franz Josef Strauss," says Peter Siebenmorgen, the author of the most authoritative Strauss biography available. "He would have launched a gigantic apartment construction program 10 years ago."

The CSU has also been claiming for years that it is improving the state's IT infrastructure. Indeed, the German transportation minister, who is responsible for IT infrastructure across the country, is a CSU member. And yet, there are still huge swaths of Bavaria where you still can't get adequate mobile phone reception.

Siebenmorgen says there have been two grand promises, two guiding principles in the history of the CSU. "Conservative means to march side-by-side with progress," that was Strauss' credo. Edmund Stoiber, for his part, was fond of the motto "laptop and lederhosen," the pairing of the modern and the traditional. That motto, though, is now 20 years old. Since then, Bavaria has been waiting for the next courageous policy proposal that everyone in the state might benefit from.


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