Germany's Conservative Meltdown The Approaching End to Merkel's Tenure

With the chancellor under heavy fire from Bavarian conservatives, Germany's political landscape may be facing radical upheaval. Angela Merkel might lose her job and the country's traditional center-right partnership could soon end. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
German Chancellor Angela Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Foto: Markus Schreiber/ AP

"At some point, I would like to find the right time to leave politics," Angela Merkel said. "That's a lot more difficult than I had imagined. But I don't want to be a half-dead wreck when I leave politics."

The comments came in response to a question about her life goals outside of politics way back in 1999. Merkel had just become secretary-general of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and sat down for an interview with the photographer Herlinde Koelbl for her book "Spuren der Macht" (Traces of Power).

That was also the year in which Merkel's rise within the CDU began, along with the almost revolutionary restructuring of the party. In subsequent years, Merkel jettisoned so many traditional CDU positions that it is more accurate to speak of a re-founding of the party than a process of modernization. Many conservatives have since been unable to recognize their old party. And all the while, discomfort with Merkel's leadership continued to grow, year after year, within the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's Bavarian sister party.

Since fall 2015, when almost a million people arrived in Germany as a result of Merkel's liberal refugee policies, this discomfort has mutated into open rejection. And now, in June 2018, the CSU has had enough, even if there isn't currently an obvious trigger for their vexation aside from approaching Bavarian state elections scheduled for mid-October. They would like to see the immediate end of the Merkel era -- there is really no other way to interpret comments made recently by CSU party leadership. And to achieve that goal, they are prepared to sacrifice the decades-long partnership between the two conservative parties.

"Merkel's political approach has reached the end of its tether," says a CSU parliamentarian. Discussions about Merkel within the CSU are characterized by rage and malice. And CSU leader Horst Seehofer is threatening to defy Merkel's constitutionally guaranteed power to determine policy guidelines.

Formally, the chaos we are seeing in the German political landscape these days stems from just one of the 63 items on Seehofer's so-called "masterplan" for reforming refugee policy: his call for people to be turned back from the German border if they have already applied for asylum or been registered as a refugee in another European Union member state. For quite some time, the CSU itself seemed unsure as to exactly who it wanted to turn away at the border, but the main thing was to take a tough line.

The Fall of Merkel?

Merkel, meanwhile, views such a policy as the kind of unilateral German move that she would like to avoid. She insists that there must be a "European solution," by which she means a reform of EU migration policy negotiated with all of Germany's European Union partners.

In truth, though, it's not about that one item on Seehofer's list. The CSU would like to put an end to the refugee policy that is closely linked with Merkel's name. If Seehofer and his party fulfill their promise to soon begin turning people back from the border -- on which no senior CSU politician leaves any doubt -- then Merkel would only be left with two options: that of abandoning her own convictions or of consummating the break between the CDU and CSU.

Ironically, it is Merkel's own sister party has triggered the most significant political crisis in her almost 13-year tenure as chancellor. It remains unclear how it will end, but chatter about the chancellor's potentially imminent demise has now become a constant at every water cooler in Berlin.

In hindsight, it seems as though the conflict we are now seeing between the CDU and CSU is but the logical final act of a link that has always been slightly neurotic, but which transformed into open distrust and even hate since the fall of 2015. The steady stream of "compromises" on refugee policy could only briefly conceal just how bad the atmosphere had become in this partnership. These sister parties haven't been friends for quite some time.

According to a survey commissioned by DER SPIEGEL, the majority of German citizens believe that the CDU and the CSU should split and go their separate ways. And if that were in fact to happen, and there are plenty of indications it might, it wouldn't just be the end of Merkel's tenure. It would also herald the end of a party system that has shaped Germany for the last 70 years and provided a fair degree of stability, particularly when compared to Germany's neighbors. And it would mark the beginning of a government crisis: It seems unrealistic to expect that the CDU and SPD would stay in power as a minority government or that they would bring the Greens on board to replace the CSU. At SPD headquarters in Berlin, preparations are already being made for new elections this fall.

Merkel still has a week to avoid the break. She hopes to be able to come up with her "European solution" to the refugee problem by July 1, the CSU having opted to give her a brief respite even though there are some in the party who argued against doing so.

The way the chancellor is being pushed around by her sister party these days has degenerated into an embarrassing political spectacle. Still, the chancellor has chosen to confront the challenge and is fighting hard to retain her hold on power. Or at least her hold on her office.

Much More at Stake

But it is difficult to imagine how Merkel and the CSU leadership will be able to yet again arrive at one of those compromises that have repeatedly been exposed as nothing but a chimera over the years. The mutual mistrust in the two camps is simply too great. What is currently taking place in Bavaria and Berlin is unprecedented in the history of the partnership between the two parties. To be sure, there has been significant turbulence in the past, most famously in 1976 when the alliance almost broke apart for good. But the conflict today is deeper and more bitter. And far more is at stake.

On Monday, the Shakespearean drama currently being staged by the two conservative parties was on full display. Following a crisis meeting between the two party leadership committees, Merkel and Seehofer held press conferences at exactly the same time to issue their latest threats against each other. Political partners generally try to avoid concurrent press events. Adversaries, however, do not.

The result was that Seehofer in Munich had to be told by a journalist what Merkel had just said minutes before in Berlin. Namely that the question of turning back refugees at the border touched on her constitutional privilege to determine government policy. The journalist then asked what Seehofer, as German interior minister, had to say about that.

Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union

Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union

Foto: Peter Kneffel/ dpa

Seehofer stopped short. "She didn't wave around her policy guideline competence when talking to me. That would be rather unusual between two party chairs," he finally said.

It wasn't the only unusual incident of the past few days. Both Merkel and Seehofer called meetings of their party leadership committees to ensure they had the necessary support in the conflict between the sister parties.

Even before the CSU meeting, of course, there had been little doubt that the party would back Seehofer. After he had sketched out the basics of his "masterplan" to party leaders -- a plan that nobody had seen aside from him and the chancellor -- Bavarian Governor Markus Söder, who has mounted a significant challenge within the CSU to Seehofer's leadership, made it clear that the CSU was determined to implement every single point of the plan. "There is no going back. That's what people are expecting from us," he said. At the conclusion of the meeting, former party head and honorary chairman Edmund Stoiber held another of his famously spirited addresses. He reminded his audience of the rise of the right-wing extremist Republikaner party in the 1980s, which, Stoiber said, was only effectively stopped by introducing significant changes to the country's asylum laws. The refugee crisis doesn't just represent a danger to the CDU-CSU partnership, he said, but also to social cohesion. The CDU and "that Ms. Karrenbauer," Stoiber said, referring to CDU Secretary-General Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, just don't get it. The leadership committee cheered and rollicked as if they were in a beer tent.

The Party's DNA

At the exact same time, the CDU was meeting in Berlin -- a bit more subdued, but no less determined. The CDU can't simply accept everything the CSU throws at them, warned Merkel's deputy Thomas Strobl. It's about "the party's DNA," said Armin Laschet, the governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. "You can't treat the CDU this way," called out Otto Wulff, head of the wing of the CDU representing voters over 60.

Merkel has managed to present the conflict to the CDU as a frontal attack on her person, a characterization essentially consistent with how it is seen in the CSU as well. Doing so has guaranteed her the strong backing of her party, even if there are plenty who disagree with her on refugee policy.

Following the press conferences, it was definitively clear that all attempts to defuse the conflict had failed. On the Thursday before last, ahead of separate meetings of the CDU and CSU caucuses, floor leader Volker Kauder of the CDU and senior CSU parliamentarian Alexander Dobrindt had met to evaluate the damage that had already been done. Dobrindt insisted that he didn't want to endanger the party alliance. "But that's what you are doing," countered Kauder. An additional meeting the next day also produced no results.

Graphic: DER SPIEGEL survey on refugees and CDU/CSU cooperation

Graphic: DER SPIEGEL survey on refugees and CDU/CSU cooperation


Merkel and Seehofer also spoke on the phone and assured each other that neither would overrule the other. "Are you going to invoke policy guideline competence?" Seehofer asked when the conversation once again turned to the issue of turning back migrants at the border. "No, no," Merkel assured him. Only to do just that a few days later.

An additional attempt at conciliation likewise bore no fruit. Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble, eminence grise of the CDU, requested a meeting with Seehofer, which took place in Schäuble's office in German parliament last Friday. Schäuble insisted to Seehofer that the CDU and CSU had to stay together, a position that Seehofer agreed with before then repeating his own position. Contrary to some within the CDU, the CSU leader didn't get the impression that Schäuble was interested in replacing Merkel and becoming chancellor himself.

On Saturday, a rumor began making the rounds among Merkel's confidantes in the Chancellery that CDU parliamentarian Christian von Stetten of Baden-Württemberg was assembling a group of CDU lawmakers who were critical of Merkel's leadership in preparation for her downfall. Stetten indignantly denied the claims, but the incident shows that Merkel's team has become so rattled that they believe anything is possible.

Yet Another Compromise?

On Sunday evening, Merkel invited CDU leaders to party headquarters in Berlin. The group watched the World Cup match between Germany and Mexico together before discussing how to approach the party leadership committee meeting scheduled for the next day in order to secure necessary support for Merkel. Her plan to take two weeks before returning to the leadership committee for consultations was unanimously supported. Seehofer had already indicated to Merkel that the CSU would also give her two weeks.

By Tuesday, though, Merkel had realized that the gesture was not the prelude to yet another compromise. At midday that day, she met with French President Emmanuel Macron just outside of Berlin. The Chancellery and the Élysée Palace had long been arguing about eurozone reform, but on this sunny June day, the differences suddenly vanished. Macron received the eurozone budget he had been demanding for so long and Merkel received Macron's assurance that France would help Germany on the refugee question.

Macron had hardly left before the chancellor received a text message from Seehofer. "In the name of the CSU, I am requesting a coalition meeting to be held next week," he wrote. Seehofer was offended that he hadn't been informed of the deal with Macron in advance while Olaf Scholz of the SPD, as the senior cabinet representative of the conservatives' junior coalition partner, had been. Merkel tried to calm Seehofer down. Everything had already been discussed with the CSU, she wrote back. Only the SPD were still a potential problem. "I talked to Scholz because the SPD wanted a lot more than we did."

But Seehofer wasn't having it. Just a couple hours after his text message to Merkel, the mass-circulation tabloid Bild published an article that made it sound as though the CSU was seeking to torpedo Merkel's deal.

Both in Seehofer's Interior Ministry and in Merkel's Chancellery, preparations are being made for the coming battle, the endgame between the sister parties. Seehofer is preparing to hold a joint press conference in the coming days with the heads of the Federal Criminal Police Office, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Germany's domestic intelligence agency) and the federal police force. All three, he says, support his position.

In the Chancellery, meanwhile, they are preparing for zero hour. Who says, the chancellor's team wonders, that Merkel has to wait until Interior Minister Seehofer orders that asylum-seekers be turned away at Germany's border. She could simply preempt him by ordering that the borders remain open. Article 65 of the German constitution, after all, is quite clear: "The Federal Chancellor shall determine and be responsible for the general guidelines of policy."

Singing the Requiem

That could be true, Seehofer responds when asked about Article 65. But he alone is authorized to issued orders to the federal police. Plus, if it came to that, he would justify his order with the need to ensure security and order in the country. "It would be a world premier if the chancellor were to order her interior minister not to do so."

And if she does? "If the chancellor doesn't agree with my policies, then she should bring the coalition to an end," Seehofer says. He insists he isn't looking to topple Merkel, but the credibility of the CSU is at stake. "If we cave in now, we can start singing the requiem."

Inside the Chancellery as in the Interior Ministry, legal opinions are currently being prepared on the question as to who is authorized to issue orders to the federal police should it come to that. That's how far things have already gone. It is clear to both protagonists: If Seehofer defies the will of the chancellor, she will have to fire him. And he would accept that, because there is one thing he fears more than the end of the governing coalition: the accusation that the CSU is kowtowing to the chancellor. "We can't sacrifice our credibility," he says.

Seehofer is hard on himself for not having been insistent enough in the past and failing to force Merkel to change course. Now, voters in Bavaria, he fears, no longer trust the CSU to assert itself in Berlin.

A Nationwide CSU and the CDU in Bavaria

But it's not just about the voters. It is also about old wounds. When listening to the two, it is impossible not to think of a failed marriage in which each keeps a long list of the transgressions of the other -- though Seehofer seems much more aggrieved than Merkel. He remembers that a former CDU secretary-general under Merkel's leadership accused him of no longer being fit for a leadership position. He remembers Merkel admonishing him in a speech by saying that Islam does in fact belong to Germany.

And then there is the article written by Ferda Ataman that Seehofer carries around with him in his folder. In the piece, Ataman indirectly accuses the minister of pursuing the politics of "blood and soil," a reference to the racism of the Nazis. Seehofer found it offensive that Merkel not only invited the journalist to a recent integration summit at the Chancellery, but also sat next to her at the press conference that followed.

The chancellor, meanwhile, appears determined to fight the battle of her life. She knows that she stands to lose everything. But more than the end of her tenure as chancellor, she is worried about creating the impression that she has become a puppet controlled by the CSU.

Lighting Everything on Fire

Merkel and her team have the feeling that they cannot back down, that she would find herself in a death spiral of concessions if she were to allow the CSU to begin turning people back at the border. What would happen if the move didn't reverse the conservatives' falling poll numbers? Would the basic right to asylum be the next to go? Or would Germany's commitment to Europe be jettisoned?

Merkel is currently flying around the world at a breakneck pace: Washington, Sochi, Porto, Beijing, Shenzhen, Québec, Amman and Beirut, all interspersed with trips to Brussels. Along the way, she seems to have lost sight of the degree of panic that has become rooted in the CSU, which faces an important state election in October and, with poll numbers hovering around 40 percent, is concerned about losing its absolute majority in the Bavarian parliament.

It was only during her trip to Canada for the G-7 that the Chancellor got around to reading Seehofer's "masterplan," which includes the sentence that could ultimately prove to be the undoing of the CDU-CSU alliance. "In the future, I intend to turn away asylum-seekers at the border if they are clearly the responsibility of another member state."

When she read it, she thought she would be able to convince him to amend or eliminate it, but he opted for stubbornness. Now, the question as to whether refugees can be turned away at three border crossings in Bavaria will determine the fate of Merkel's governing coalition. Merkel thinks that's crazy. And Seehofer agrees. The chancellor, he said in an interview with the regional newspaper Passauer Neue Presse, is "turning Mickey Mouse into a monster." Neither Merkel nor Seehofer saw a conflict of this intensity approaching. But now that it is here, he is lighting everything on fire.

For Merkel, there are few places these days where she can escape the CSU. On Thursday, Merkel was visiting the German-Jordanian University in Amman, which is one of those rare places. The students, including Syrian refugees, expressed their gratitude for the humanity shown by the chancellor despite all the resistance against her. A young woman wearing a headscarf stood up and said, "It's my dream to be like you."

'An Open Country'

Merkel accepted all the homages without expressing any emotion, but here, too, she made it clear that she still holds the deep conviction that she did the right thing. When a young woman asked why the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) has grown so strong in Germany, Merkel replied that the sheer number of refugees naturally triggered a debate in Germany, and that there are differing views on how the situation should be addressed. "I am on the side of those who say we want to be an open country," she then added.

The contrast to her Bavarian friends couldn't be any sharper. And yet Merkel is still doing a lot to appease them. Merkel has promised that she will seek a "European solution" during the two weeks' time she has now bought for herself. Which sounds reasonable. But why the calls for a European solution now? Why wasn't one sought in the weeks, months and years that have passed since the peak of the refugee crisis? Merkel has been silent about why she is only now hastily and hectically shuffling her schedule around in her effort to make this happen. It is at the very least striking that it is only since Seehofer's threat that Merkel has suddenly become so enthusiastic about shaping a European response.

But merely the preparations for this Sunday's mini-summit in Brussels have demonstrated to the chancellor the extent to which her authority has already shrunk on the European level. Merkel had hoped to host the meeting, to which countries like Italy, Greece, Spain and Austria have been invited, in Berlin. But some of the invitees let it be known that they would be unwilling to travel to the German capital. Many still regard the way Merkel so vehemently championed a policy of open borders in the beginning as the main culprit for the refugee chaos that many European countries have been dealing with since the autumn of 2015. So, it's not as if many of these European leaders are simply going to hop on a plane to save the chancellor and ensure she can remain in office.

As a last resort, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker jumped in and offered to host Merkel's summit in Brussels. Preparations for the summit, though, veered toward disaster on Thursday, though, when the final declaration emerged. Hungarian President Victor Orbán railed that his and the other Visegrád countries of Eastern Europe aren't interested in common approaches or the redistribution of refugees -- all they want is greater protection of the EU's external borders.

The response from Rome was of even greater significance. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Merkel telephoned during her visit to Jordan on Thursday, after which he posted on Facebook that the "Cancelliera" had agreed to shelve the draft. Merkel's people would not confirm whether this is true, but the chancellor now faces an unpleasant decision. If she stands firm on the content of the declaration, which is very accommodating to the Germans, the Italians will not be on board. And without Rome's support, the summit will have been useless. And even if Merkel can persuade the Italians on Sunday to take part in the meeting of EU leaders, it's likely she can forget any concrete goals for returning refugees to the point where they entered the EU.

Unprecedented Dilemma

It's a difficult predicament. If the chancellor is unable to find any agreement in the run-up to the meeting, then how does she intend to reach one at the summit?

It is, of course, clear to the other EU leaders that Merkel's sudden activity has less to do with the refugees than it does with saving her chancellorship. Particularly given that current refugee numbers don't suggest any need for hasty action. By mid-June, around 40,000 people had entered the EU, about half as many as the previous year, according to the International Organization for Migration in Berlin. In 2016, there had been more than 215,000 in the same period.

At the moment, most EU partners appear to be gauging the price the chancellor will be willing to pay for any concessions. Macron already demonstrated this during his visit with Merkel at Meseberg. He effortlessly obtained Merkel's approval for his eurozone budget, but also offered her the readmission of refugees in exchange. Merkel is more vulnerable to extortion right now than at any other point in her history as Germany's leader.

Markus Ferber, a member of the European Parliament with the CSU, has warned the chancellor against trying to shoehorn any other issues that do not relate directly to the refugee crisis into such deals. "Debt relief for Greece, deposit guarantees for banks for Italy -- the chancellor cannot throw the Christian Democrats' core issues overboard just to reach a deal in the refugee crisis," he says.

Indeed, the verbiage upon which Merkel's fate now hinges is very Teutonic. It's included in the resolution passed by the CSU executive committee on Monday: "of suitable impact." Under that wording, whatever Merkel negotiates at the European level would also have to have an effect on the influx of refugees analogous to Seehofer's plan to turn people away at the border. Ultimately, it's the CSU that will serve as the judge and jury of Merkel's efforts. CSU Secretary-General Markus Blume has already been very open about the fact that the party's aim is not that of finding the best possible solution. "The point is to send a message to the people," he says.

A visit to the small town of Marktredwitz in the Franconia region of northeast Bavaria can provide a better understanding of the plight currently facing the CSU. In the national election here in September, the CSU fared terribly, with the party even falling to second place behind the AfD. Some 26 percent of voters cast their ballots for the AfD, with only 22 percent voting for the CSU.

Questioning Merkel

Markus Söder made a campaign appearance in the town on Tuesday, and Martin Schöffel, a member of the state parliament warmed up the crowd. Certain individuals in Germany have suspended the law, he said, and by that, he was clearly referring to the chancellor. "You have to ask yourself whether this woman is still on the right track," Schöffel added, so loudly that the shriek of feedback filled the air.

It's exactly the tone Söder is fond of striking. The Bavarian governor is the driving force behind the confrontation course with Merkel. He refers to the phenomenon of refugees heading for Germany as a "kind of tourism." He also has a message for the chancellor: "The European solution cannot consist of Germany bearing the main burden in the end," he says. Söder has concluded that there are only two possibilities: Merkel must either submit to the CSU's demands or she must go. Otherwise, the CSU will stand no chance of continuing to govern on its own in the state of Bavaria. It will have no other alternative but to enter into a coalition government. Poll numbers seem to indicate that he is right. Although his personal popularity remains high in Bavaria, current polls show his party falling considerably short of a majority in the next election, while the AfD is holding steady at 13 percent.

Given how widespread his view of the situation is within the CSU, Söder has been systematic in his efforts to seek confrontation with Merkel's CDU. When it comes to rejecting refugees, Söder has a majority of voters behind him, according to a survey commissioned by DER SPIEGEL. Sixty-one percent of those questioned said they support the CSU's plan. A solid 58 percent, however, are also of the opinion that Angela Merkel should remain chancellor.

With his unending stream of demands, Söder is now even outdoing CSU party boss Seehofer, who had been Merkel's greatest detractor within the party thus far. In May, for example, Söder became the first CSU politician to publicly raise the question of turning refugees away at the border. Last week, he told his party's parliamentary group in the Bundestag that no false compromises could be made on the issue. Seehofer himself doesn't have the power to object, even if he wanted to. While he may be interior minister and still the leader of the CSU, he has been fighting for his political survival since the September election. Given that Seehofer doesn't hold a seat in parliament, it would be the end of his political career if Merkel were to dismiss him as minister.

Alexander Dobrindt, who heads the CSU's group in the Bundestag, is also backing Söder's hardline approach. Back when Seehofer was still considering having the rejection of refugees first kick in once the upper ceiling of 200,000 asylum-seekers had been reached, Dobrindt was already one step ahead. At the beginning of June, he declared that all refugees who had already been registered in another country must be turned back at the border. He claimed this was part of Seehofer's masterplan, even though that wasn't yet true at that point in time.

As recently as last week, the plan had still been to only reject those who had already filed an application for asylum in another country. That's also how Seehofer had presented it to the national group. But that was too soft for Dobrindt's and Söder's taste. On Monday, Seehofer fell into line with his fellow CSU executive committee members.

The decision on whether to break from the government or to continue may be taken as early as July 1. The CDU executive committee is set is to meet at 5 p.m. at party headquarters in Berlin that day, with the national board then convening at 7 p.m. Merkel will then present details of whatever agreement she has reached with the other European partners. The CSU also intends to convene its top committee on the same day.

Few close to Merkel believe she will be able to fulfill the ideal scenario of meeting all the CSU's demands. The hope is that she can at least reach some agreements that will satisfy the Bavarians that progress is being made. She would then be able to credibly state that bilateral agreements with Italy and other countries would be possible within a few weeks' time.

But it's questionable whether this will appease the CSU. The party has dug itself in to such a degree that yielding in any way would appear as defeat -- and further diminish its prospects for the upcoming state election in Bavaria. Söder is not in a position to accept any compromise that might make the CSU appear to be the loser.

The End of Power-Sharing?

In that event, the CSU executive would provide Seehofer with a mandate to issue orders as interior minister for turning refugees back at the border. As she has already indicated, Merkel would in turn forbid him from doing so. If the interior minister were to refuse to comply, and it is expected that he would not, the chancellor would have to submit a request for his termination with the German president. It's also probable that the other CSU ministers in Merkel's cabinet would all resign. That would mark the end of a power-sharing deal in the federal parliament between the CDU and CSU that has spanned almost 70 years.

How things would proceed after that is an open question. Merkel's backers are already considering the possible scenarios that would make it possible for the chancellor to remain in office.

One envisions portraying the conflict between the CDU and CSU as a struggle between a cosmopolitan, pro-Europe wing of the conservatives in opposition to a wing oriented toward nationalists like Hungary's Viktor Orbán and Italy's Matteo Salvini. From Merkel's perspective, this would have the advantage that it would provide her with plausible reasons to stay in power even if she returns from the Brussels summit without any deal.

The first Merkel supporters are already going public with statements of support to bolster her. "This dispute is not about details," says Schleswig-Holstein Governor Daniel Günther. "This is about the CDU's decades-long, fundamental orientation as a pro-European party, one which we cannot wantonly abandon."

CDU deputy chair Ursula von der Leyen echoes that sentiment, saying, "I am very concerned about this development." She also warns against further escalation. "We can't allow ourselves to overreach and replace the common European idea with a national club of egoists." Even if the CSU is right that we need considerable improvements on the issue of illegal migration, "the swan song to orderly multilateralism strikes right at the heart of the CDU," says von der Leyen. She argues that no major problem in the future can be solved at the national level.

The consideration right now, according to sources close to Merkel, is for a party conference to be held after a possible break between the CDU and CSU at which Merkel could promote her political course. If the majority in her party backed her, she would seek to continue governing together with the current coalition partner, the SPD, and try to add the Greens to the mix. "Anyone who believes that Germany is strong enough on its own to assert our values and maintain our prosperity is wrong," says Daniel Günther. His hope is that the CDU will "adopt a clear stance in order to also lead the CSU back to this course."

Another outcome of a split, though, would be that the CSU could become a national party -- and the CDU would likewise become a presence in Bavaria. Party strategists are nervously eyeing a survey by pollster Insa, which shows a national CSU party could end up with 18 percent in a federal election in the event it ends its alliance with the CDU. Insiders say the party would have no problem raising money, either, given that there are wealthy conservative fans of the CSU across the country. They point, for example, to the Hinneberg brothers in Hamburg, billionaire shipping magnates who have good contacts with Donald Trump. By becoming a national party, however, the CSU would risk losing its position as Bavaria's main political party. Nationally, it would have to position itself as the party filling the right end of the political spectrum and it would gradually lose its Bavarian identity.

'The CDU Will Also Run in Bavaria'

Meanwhile, if the CDU were to move quickly after a possible break with the CSU, it could field candidates in Bavarian state elections this fall. Volker Bouffier, the deputy head of the CDU and governor of the state of Hesse, was the first to go public with that threat. "If the CSU wages a national campaign, then the CDU will also run in Bavaria," he says. Former CDU secretary-general Ruprecht Polenz also recommended to party supporters on Facebook that the party should field candidates in the Bavarian election if the CSU abandons its alliance. Meanwhile, Christian Bäumler, vice-chair of the labor wing of the CDU, argued in an editorial with the business daily Handelsblatt that the party should already be making preparations to establish a new state chapter in order to participate in the Bavarian election. "That might also show the CSU that elections in Bavaria are also won at the center of society and not on the right-wing fringe." There is no scenario that the CSU fears more.

This wouldn't be the first time the CDU considered planting its flag in Bavaria. Back in 1976, another time when the CSU was threatening to end the partnership, the CDU made concrete preparations to create a state chapter. Kurt Biedenkopf, the CDU's secretary-general at the time, even assigned regions to the youth wing of its party for the establishment of local chapters in the state and even took the step of reserving restaurants and pubs for related events.

Michael Kosmala is one person who is prepared to be at the forefront of establishing the CDU in Bavaria. The 59-year-old management expert from Amberg, who has worked for years for the Seidl Foundation, a CSU-aligned think tank, attempted once before to establish a Bavarian CDU back 2016, which he dubbed the "CDSU." "Merkel's refugee policy was a great humanitarian gesture," says Kosmala, "and Seehofer is now destroying everything." Kosmala explains that he tried to warn Merkel about Seehofer in 2015 and offered his support for a Bavarian chapter of the CDU. But when he got started, he promptly received a legal letter from CDU Secretary-General Peter Tauber forbidding him from using the letters C, D and U for his project. "Now, Merkel is being slaughtered by the man she was trying to protect at the time," Kosmala says of Seehofer. But if a chasm does now develop between the CSU and the CDU, Kosmala says he's ready to jump in to help set the party set up shop in Bavaria. He wouldn't be alone either.

No Golden Days Left for Merkel

Even her closest confidants have no idea what Merkel will really do if it does come to a breach. It's possible she would resign herself after dismissing Seehofer, a move that would likely result in a power struggle within the CDU. Wolfgang Schäuble, currently president of the Bundestag, is considered a possible candidate for transition chancellor, and CDU Secretary-General Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer could also be a candidate to take over as party chair. Economics Minister Peter Altmaier's name has also been thrown into the ring.

But snap elections would likely be inevitable. To that end, the CDU's junior government coalition partner, the Social Democrats, have already begun making preliminary preparations for that scenario. On Thursday and Friday of last week and then again on Monday, SPD Secretary-General Lars Klingbeil headed up three secret meetings. The issue: the possibility of a new parliamentary election and the question of how to quickly organize a campaign. Those sitting at the table included SPD Executive Director Thorben Albrecht and departmental heads from the national party headquarters, among others. They discussed possible dates for the election and the associated deadlines for drawing up candidate lists and drafting political platforms.

They identified early September as the earliest possible date for a new election. The Social Democrats have likewise already begun looking for suitable venues for a special party conference. Officials in the severely battered party are determined not to get caught off guard again as they were at the end of last year. When talks for a so-called "Jamaica" coalition between the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), the business-friendly Free Democrats and the Green Party collapsed, the SPD was anything but prepared for the possibility of snap elections.

But even if the breakup of the CDU-CSU partnership can still be prevented and early elections averted, Merkel can count on one thing -- it's unlikely that there are any golden days left in her career as chancellor. As long as she remains in office, the CSU will be unwilling to make peace with her. And in contrast to the grand coalition governments that have preceded it, the deeply insecure SPD will be largely concerned with its own well-being. It has often been said, not unjustly, that Helmut Kohl's final years at Germany's helm were heavy as lead. The ballast could get even heavier for Merkel.

And it could become even more obvious that Merkel, despite her good intentions 20 years ago, has already missed the chance to find the right time to exit the political stage.

By Melanie Amann, Anna Clauß, Markus Feldenkirchen, Jan Friedmann, Christoph Hickmann, Christiane Hoffmann, Ann-Kathrin Jeske, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch and René Pfister

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