The AfD Wedge Bavarian Conservatives Weigh Split from Merkel's CDU
The rise of the right-wing populist AfD has driven a wedge between Merkel's Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party. The CSU is now threatening to go it alone, with officials saying they may campaign against the chancellor in the 2017 election.
The problem starts with the question: Who is Herr Meuthen? Gray-haired and wearing a suit, the serious-looking Jörg Meuthen is standing on the stage inside the Stuttgart Trade Fair Center and saying things that any self-respecting member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) could agree with. Germany needs a modern form of conservatism, he says, adding that one shouldn't be ashamed for standing up for "consequential freedom and healthy patriotism."
But as much as he might sound like the 1980s version of the CDU, Meuthen isn't even a member of the party. Rather, he is a leading member of Baden-Württemberg's state chapter of Alternative for Germany (AfD), the right-wing populist, anti-immigration party that has attracted an increasing amount of support in recent months. And Meuthen's dusty, wide tie-era rhetoric is only nostalgic at first listen. There is, after all, a different Meuthen. Later on in his speech at the AfD party convention on the last day in April, he'll receive enthusiastic applause after expressing his desire for a different kind of republic: "Away from leftist-red-green infected -- one could also say slightly soiled -- 1968-Germany."
The reference is easily understood in Germany. Leftist refers to the far-left Left Party, "red" refers to the center-left Social Democrats and "green" is very clearly the Green Party -- all of which he lumps together with the student rebellion days of 1968. But the phrase "red-green soiled" is not Meuthen's own. He took it from the author Akif Pirinçci, who has become notorious for his homophobic, sexist and anti-immigrant polemics despite his own Turkish background. At an October 2015 demonstration of the anti-immigrant group Pegida, he accused German politicians of having "lost all respect for their own people" and accused them of wanting to throw their critics out of the country. There are alternatives, he noted, "but the concentration camps aren't currently in operation." It was a statement that cost him his publishing contracts, but the right-wing scene has since hailed him as a martyr.
It could be merely a coincidence that Meuthen, a man seen as the serious face of the AfD, borrowed from Pirinçci. But it is also possible that it was a sober calculation. AfD is currently in the process of reshuffling Germany's entire political landscape and its success depends not only on reaching citizens concerned about immigration, but also blatant racists.
It is a carefully balanced cocktail combining a shot of seriousness with a sprig of xenophobia -- and it is one that has attracted so many voters in eastern Germany that AfD is now giving the country's largest established parties there a run for their money. In western Germany, meanwhile, German conservatives see themselves under threat. After half a century of successfully keeping right-wing populist parties out of the federal parliament, Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), are at odds over how best to deal with the threat posed by Alternative for Germany.
AfD is as Janus-faced as the people running it. It is a political movement originally founded by a nondescript economist who hated the euro. But now, four years later, it is represented by people like Björn Höcke, a man who is comfortable expounding on racist stereotypes and whose speeches carry a distinct nationalist flavor -- as though he just stepped out of a Leni Riefenstahl film.
Born Out of Frustration
It's a new kind of party: AfD isn't openly anti-democratic like the neo-Nazi NPD, but it also isn't the product of a personality cult, like the briefly successful populist Schill Party was in the early 2000s. Perhaps the best comparison is to the Republikaner, a party founded in the 1980s by two CSU politicians who were disappointed by their party's leadership and, specifically, by a loan made by Bavaria to the East German regime led by Erich Honecker.
Disappointment was also the seed of the AfD -- a party born out of frustration with Merkel's approach to the euro crisis. But a new aspect of the AfD is its astounding mutability. When the euro crisis began to fade, founder Bernd Lucke was shoved aside and the new leadership set about profiting from the immigration crisis. Now that the Balkan Route has been closed and the number of migrants arriving in Germany has plunged, fear of Islam is to become the party's new focus. It is, as deputy AfD head Beatrix von Storch has said, "an explosive issue."
AfD has attracted voters away from many parties in Germany, but the debate as to how to respond to the new threat has been most embittered among conservatives. The Bavarian CSU sees AfD's rise as a consequence of Merkel's leadership, particularly her long-standing efforts to push the CDU to the center of the political spectrum and her stance on the refugee crisis. The CSU believes the latter is to blame for attracting hundreds of thousands of migrants to Germany who would not otherwise have made the dangerous journey.
At a meeting of CSU leaders in Munich last Monday, it became clear just how deep the discord over the chancellor's refugee policies remains. CSU head Horst Seehofer held up a graphic showing the development of refugee flows into Germany. After Sept. 5, 2015, when the chancellor opened German borders to those migrants stranded in Hungary, the numbers spiked, said Seehofer. He then pointed to another point on the graphic: the day when Macedonia decided to close its border. From that point, the CSU leader said, the numbers of refugees plunged.
On one hand, his presentation was an effort to prove that his interpretation of events was the correct one. Merkel continues to stubbornly claim that her Hungary decision and the infamous selfies she took with refugees played no role in attracting migrants to Germany. She says they were on their way to Europe anyway. But Seehofer is also trying to get the chancellor to change her entire approach. The lesson of AfD's rise, says senior CSU member and German Transportation Minister Alexander Dobrindt, is that German conservatives, particularly the CDU, should hew more closely to the CSU line.
Room to the Right
"I never would have thought that the CDU and CSU would ever think and act so far apart from each other on a central issue as is currently the case with the refugee question," Dobrindt told SPIEGEL in an interview for the most recent issue, which hit the newsstands on Saturday.
On Sunday, the party went even further. Speaking on German public broadcaster ZDF, Bavarian Finance Minister Marcus Söder said that divisions between the CDU and the CSU were deeper today than they have been in decades. He too went on to lay the blame for the success of the AfD at the feet of Merkel. "It is obvious that, with the shift to the left undertaken by the CDU, room to the right has been created," he said.
Back in March, at a meeting of the CSU strategy commission preparing for the 2017 general election in Germany, Seehofer presented the main outlines of his party's new approach to the CDU. The CSU head sees AfD as a party catering to those in Germany who feel disadvantaged. As such, he wants to ensure that pensions for low-income earners remain stable, even if it costs the state billions to do so. He also wants to campaign against European Central Bank head Mario Draghi and his insistence on keeping interest rates low.
Should the CDU not follow his lead, the CSU might have to run its own campaign ahead of the 2017 election, Seehofer said. He himself would then become the party's lead candidate in the election, CSU party sources say.
The move would be unprecedented. In national elections, the CSU has always campaigned at the side of the CDU and the two parties have always thrown their collective support behind a single chancellor candidate. There have in the past been chancellor candidates from the CSU, but they have in turn been supported by the CDU: There has never been a situation where the CSU campaigns with its own lead candidate against a CDU incumbent.
There are plenty in Germany who would like to see such a challenge to Merkel on the national stage. Currently, the CSU only appears on Bavarian ballots, but a recent poll by the pollsters at Infratest Dimap found that fully 45 percent of Germans would welcome a nationwide CSU expansion (with 40 percent opposed).
Such a thing isn't likely. Nor would Seehofer's campaigning as the CSU's lead candidate have much more than symbolic value. But that symbolic value would be significant. It would make it clear to Bavarian voters that they were casting their ballots for the CSU rather than for German conservatives as a whole. And it would make clear that the CSU would not play its traditional role as CDU supporter, but rather function as a guarantee that Merkel would not simply be able to continue the refugee policies she has pursued until now.
Not So Simple
Nobody in the CSU really hopes for such a scenario -- it would mark a dramatic split on the right not unlike that being witnessed with the Republican Party in the United States at the moment. But there are few indications that Merkel is prepared to accommodate the CSU. Her advisors say she is convinced that the CDU would lose more voters in the center than it would gain on the right were it to adopt CSU positions. Furthermore, she considers the hard core of Islamophobic or xenophobic AfD supporters to be unreachable anyway, her advisors say.
The situation is, in fact, not nearly as simple as the CSU presents it. To be sure, many conservative voters in western Germany have migrated to AfD: In March state elections in Baden-Württemberg, the CDU lost 190,000 votes to AfD and in Rhineland-Palatinate, that figure was 50,000. But the vast majority of AfD voters hadn't voted in previous elections. Furthermore, the results of the last federal election in 2013 show that Merkel was successful in poaching voters from the left. She stole over 600,000 voters nationwide from the Green Party and from the SPD.
Merkel has made an about-face in the refugee crisis and has sought to close off migrant routes to Europe with the help of Turkey. But she refuses to move her party to the right. At a special meeting of party leaders in mid-April -- called to analyze the results of the three state elections held in March -- pollster Matthias Jung explained that voters at large have much more modern attitudes than the Christian Democratic Union's party base. CDU General Secretary Peter Tauber said afterwards: "The CDU sees itself confirmed in its choice to occupy the political center."
But even to well-meaning CDU members, Tauber's interpretation seemed forced. After all, in Baden-Württemberg the CDU has shrunk to being merely a junior coalition partner to the Greens. In Saxony-Anhalt, because of the strength of AfD in the eastern German state, the CDU has been forced into a governing coalition with the SPD and Greens. And why, many are wondering, should the CDU -- which has always seen itself as a conservative party -- now abandon conservative voters?
The Christian Democrat governor of Hesse, Volker Bouffier, is among those saying that the CDU must address its traditional voters as well. Senior party leader Jens Spahn insists that the CDU needs to focus more on issues such as family, social cohesion, security and homeland. Merkel is fully aware of the mood and felt it necessary at a meeting of CDU leaders last Monday to clarify where she stood. The CDU must take seriously the problems concerning AfD voters and take steps to solve them, she said. But once the sentence was reported in the press -- along with the interpretation that Merkel was "changing course" -- she immediately denied it.
Merkel believes that CDU success under her leadership can be explained by her having adopted issues traditionally associated with the SPD and Greens. She sees the dissolution of the classic political camps as among her significant achievements -- an interpretation that sees AfD merely as collateral damage. All of Merkel's predecessors had adhered to the guiding principle voiced by erstwhile CSU leader Franz Josef Strauss, which held that conservatives could not allow the development of a democratically legitimate party to its right. Tauber, Merkel's general secretary, has turned that around by arguing that the CDU's Christian roots create a natural barrier to the right beyond which the party cannot operate.
Going It Alone
Merkel is hoping that AfD will destroy itself, either as a function of internal party differences or by moving too far to the right. Both are rather vague hopes. AfD has seen some intense infighting, such as last summer when current party head Frauke Petry shoved aside party founder Bernd Lucke. But an internal study undertaken by the CDU think tank Konrad Adenauer Stiftung recently concluded: "Following the split at the (summer 2015) party convention in Essen, AfD has stabilized." At the membership meeting two weekends ago in Stuttgart, the report concludes, "party leadership successfully avoided an open outbreak of significant personal conflicts and the conflict between the base and the party elite."
The Konrad Adenauer Stiftung analysis makes it clear where the party stands: "The party's focus continues to be on Islamophobia, opposition to immigration, opposition to the EU, anti-Americanism, pejorative criticism of Merkel, hate for the established parties and berating of the media." But AfD leadership was clever enough to block the most radical proposed additions to the party platform -- such as the call for a minimum of 200,000 deportations per year and Germany's withdrawal from NATO.
In the past, there have been several reasons why no right-wing party has become established in Germany. One of those was that admitting to voting for a party such as the NPD or the Republikaner was akin to civic death. With AfD, though, that has changed. The party's supporters are united by their disdain for what they deride as the "leftist opinion cartel."
For the moment, it doesn't look as though AfD is going to split any time soon. It seems more likely that the right-wing party will continue driving the CSU and CDU apart. Last Monday, CSU head Seehofer made an appearance in a beer tent in the Munich district of Trudering. He made a couple of jabs at Merkel, noting that he had to talk with her on the phone every weekend. "I get my marching orders every Sunday evening," he joked sarcastically. But his tone was less ironic when he spoke about the ongoing dispute with the CSU's sister party: "We can also go it alone," Seehofer said. "I have repeated that message several times in Berlin."