The Schism Merkel's Conservatives Divided and Discordant

Chancellor Angela Merkel's contentious relationship with her new interior minister, Horst Seehofer, threatens to overshadow her fourth term in office. The two conservative leaders fundamentally disagree about who their constituents should be.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and Chancellor Angela Merkel in parliament on Thursday.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and Chancellor Angela Merkel in parliament on Thursday.

Foto: Michael Sohn/ AP

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer had long since taken his seat in the government benches in the German parliament on Wednesday when Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped up to the podium to deliver the first major speech of her fourth term . Seehofer, the head of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was sitting in the spot that Merkel's faithful confidant, ex-Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, had occupied for so many years. It offers not only an excellent view of the podium, but also a clear line of sight to the seat of Alexander Gauland, co-leader of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party that has been mercilessly hounding the conservatives since last fall's election.

Merkel had prepared a small surprise for her new interior minister this week. A couple of sentences that he shouldn't soon forget. Just that morning, the chancellor and Seehofer had attended a cabinet meeting together, but she didn't say a word about what she was planning to say later in parliament. She wanted to catch Seehofer off guard.

Just over a week previously, an interview with Seehofer had appeared in the tabloid daily Bild in which he repeated a sentence that he has said dozens of times. Nobody really knows what it means in practice, but its simplicity has transformed it into a useful political weapon. "Islam," Seehofer said, "doesn't belong to Germany."

The sentence quickly dominated the Berlin news cycle, even as Seehofer insisted in the ensuing days that he hadn't intended the remark to overshadow the beginning of his term in the Interior Ministry. He had simply answered a question, he innocently asserted. Should he have refused to reply? Merkel, for her part, didn't believe for a second that Seehofer had merely been a blameless victim. The CSU head, says a source in the Chancellery, has been in the business of politics long enough to know that the impact of words is often largely dependent on when they are uttered.

Why, for heaven's sake, must he offend 4.5 million Muslims in Germany right as Merkel's fourth term is getting started?

But as is so often the case when Merkel and Seehofer bicker, they didn't speak openly to each other, initially preferring to ignore the conflict instead. Last weekend, they spoke several times on the phone, but Seehofer's Islam quote only came up once, as a joking aside. As a result, it wasn't until Wednesday that Seehofer realized just how angry the chancellor was.

The Rebuke

Of course Germany has been molded by the traditions of Christianity and Judaism, she said in her speech before parliament. But millions of Muslims now live in Germany as well and, as such, their religion is also part of the country. And just to make sure that everyone was clear that she was publicly contradicting Seehofer, she then said: "I know that many have a problem accepting this concept."

"Seehofer!" yelled an alert parliamentarian from the floor and Seehofer nodded in agreement from his spot on the government bench. He was apparently of no mind to hide his divergence with the chancellor.

Has such a thing happened in Germany before? A chancellor using the first speech of a new term to reprimand an important minister? And an interior minister who is apparently unprepared to recognize the chancellor's precedence in defining government policy?

"I won't change my position a single iota," Seehofer said on Wednesday evening a few hours after Merkel's speech. It was completely unnecessary, he went on, to contradict him in public. "I have no understanding for that whatsoever."

Merkel finds herself in a paradoxical situation. The Social Democrats (SPD), a party which was punished by the voters  in the election last September and only joined the new coalition with Merkel following months of handwringing , is suddenly a more reliable partner than the CSU, her Christian Democrats' "sister party." As Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz from the SPD quietly goes about his business, Interior Minister Seehofer is parading through the government quarter with a megaphone. Being both part of the government and part of the opposition is just fine for Seehofer.

A Few Bumpy Years

This isn't the first time that a CSU leader has questioned Merkel's authority as chancellor. In 2005, Edmund Stoiber said that the chancellor's authority was of course limited in a grand coalition. It was a sentence that political Berlin talked about for days and it wasn't particularly helpful to Merkel, who was just launching her very first term in office.

Now, when asked about Merkel's authority to set the government agenda, Seehofer says: "How is that supposed to work?" After all, he says, he is the head of one of the parties in the governing coalition and for that reason alone, he cannot be overruled.

Germany, it seems, is facing a few bumpy years. The clash between Merkel and Seehofer, after all, isn't just about a single sentence. It goes much deeper than that. The past several days have shown that the compromise the CDU and the CSU reached on refugee policy prior to the election merely papered over the deeper conflict. Seehofer got the upper limit on the number of refugees allowed to enter Germany each year as he had been demanding. But the much more fundamental questions as to how conservatives should treat the AfD and how to ultimately push the right-wing populists out of parliament have yet to be answered.

Merkel, to her credit, didn't hide behind bland, carefully crafted rhetoric in her speech to parliament as she usually does. She openly admitted that the decision in summer 2015 to open up Germany's borders to incoming refugees had divided the country. She spoke clearly and passionately, with the freedom that comes as political retirement approaches.

The relationship between Merkel and Seehofer has never been easy.

The relationship between Merkel and Seehofer has never been easy.

Foto: Markus Schreiber/ AP

In essence, though, the chancellor defended her decision in favor of open borders and against barbed wire. "We took in people in need," she said. It was a sentence that revealed her pride in having overcome all resistance at an important moment.

And that is why the conflict with the CSU won't come to an end anytime soon. Seehofer and much of the rest of his party doesn't see Merkel's decision to welcome refugees as an achievement but as the root of all evil. He wants to lead conservatives back to the right to confront the AfD head on. And he is willing to pursue that course even if it means an open rift with the CDU.

Upcoming Bavarian Elections

The CDU has thus far declined to comment on Seehofer's "master plan" for deportations. But even the fact that he is considering boosting border checks has riled up some in the party. Armin Laschet, a member of the CDU and the governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, threatened Seehofer during a meeting of senior conservatives on Monday with "a real quarrel" if he starts questioning the Schengen system of open borders.

From the perspective of the CSU, it is a good time to pick a fight with the chancellor and with the centrist wing of the Christian Democrats. Last year, his party had no choice but to reach a compromise with Merkel. After all, she was the chancellor candidate for both the CDU and the CSU.

This year, though, the primary focus for the CSU is the upcoming state elections in Bavaria, scheduled for October. Everything else is secondary - which is why Seehofer wants to make sure his voice is heard on all important issues. And if Merkel contradicts him, well that's just how it is. The CSU party leadership believes that a conflict with Merkel is more useful than it is deleterious because it makes it clear to voters that the CSU stands for a different policy approach.

"We aren't going to stand down in the Islam debate," says CSU General Secretary Markus Blume. "What Horst Seehofer said remains correct and the vast majority of the population believes that Islam doesn't belong to Germany." The foundation of societal cooperation is at stake, he says. "We shouldn't be constantly calling such self-evident facts into question."

It's not that Seehofer and his people don't recognize the contradiction inherent in their own position. Muslims, they say, are part of German society, but not Islam? A rather strange position.

Winning Back the Right Wing

For the CSU, though, it's all about creating a certain atmosphere, particularly when it comes to approaching AfD voters. But the question is: How far is the CSU willing and able to go in its fight against the right-wing populists? In its political platform, the AfD rejects minarets. And recently, AfD co-leader Alice Weidel broadly referred to Muslims as "knife-stabbing migrants."

Merkel is of the opinion that conservatives can only lose if they take part in this spiral of escalation. But she doesn't have an answer for how she intends to win back the right wing of the democratic political spectrum.

"I am determined to prevent others from occupying the space to the right of center," says Alexander Dobrindt, the new head of the CSU group in parliament and a man who Merkel's people see as being even more of a rabble-rouser than Seehofer. Speaking to a small group of journalists, Dobrindt recently said that the CSU will continue along its current path no matter what Merkel thinks of it.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 13/2018 (March 23rd, 2018) of DER SPIEGEL.

And the party has already identified a new issue to harp on. The Social Democrats would like to annule Paragraph 219a of the German Criminal Code, which bans advertisements for abortion. Recently, conservatives only just managed to prevent the SPD from assembling a majority in parliament for the move.

Justice Minister Katarina Barley (SPD) has now been tasked with authoring a proposal that would be acceptable to conservatives as well. But the CSU is playing stubborn and is categorically opposed to any easing of the ban on abortion advertising. "Keep your hands off Paragraph 219a," says General Secretary Blume. "The CSU will not support any change to the law."

'Not Up to Politicians to Decide'

Normally it is said that grand coalitions, which pair a country's two largest, centrist political parties, strengthen the political fringes. But the CSU are eager to prevent that from happening this time around. The party wants to bring polarizing political debate into the heart of the coalition; it wants to be the voice of protest while at the same time being part of the government. It remains to be seen if it will work. Prior to the election, Merkel seemed content to ignore the numerous jibes and indignities coming from Seehofer. But now, the chancellor is unwilling to allow Seehofer to set the agenda by himself.

Merkel, after all, has spent much of her tenure at the head of the CDU cultivating new constituencies for the party, including women and urban residents. Those voters, though, will hardly feel represented by a party that is also courting AfD supporters. That, in fact, is the dilemma faced by German conservatives: Merkel and Seehofer don't just disagree on the issues -- their message is intended for two entirely different groups of voters. And it is unclear whether they will be able to find their way back to each other.

Merkel and her people accuse Seehofer of practicing the politics of symbolism. "Whether Islam belongs to Germany or not is a ridiculous debate," says Tobias Hans, the CDU governor of the state of Saarland. "It's not up to politicians to decide what religions belong to our country and which do not." He says that all those who accept Germany's legal system and values and who integrate themselves into society belong to Germany.

Schleswig-Holstein Governor Daniel Günther, likewise of the CDU, also warned the CSU to avoid sham debates. The aim, he noted, should be that of implementing concrete policies. But politics is also about emotions and Seehofer accuses Merkel of having ignored the mood of German voters for too long.

Many in the CDU are comforting themselves with the prospect that tension between the CSU and the CDU could ease once Bavarian state elections are over. Plus, it can hardly be in Seehofer's interest to constantly produce sensationalist headlines. In fact, his Islam comment has put him in something of a difficult position. Because in the same interview, he announced his intention to continue with the Islam Conference, a dialogue between political leaders and the country's Muslim community that was launched a decade ago by then-Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. How do those two things fit together?

At the Monday meeting of the CSU parliamentary group to which Seehofer had been invited, he proved unwilling to elaborate. "Horst, do you want to say anything about the situation," Dobrindt reportedly asked him.

But Seehofer merely shook his head. And sat there silently with his arms crossed.

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