The CSU: Bavarian Partner and Power Player
One of the peculiarities of the German political landscape is the role of the Christian Social Union (CSU). A party whose reach is confined to the borders of Bavaria, it has been a major force within the national framework of the Federal Republic of Germany ever since it emerged out of the reconstruction of political parties after World War II. It has dominated the Bavarian state government since then. At the federal level, the CSU forms a caucus with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and shares a mutual platform in the federal elections. While that close working relationship has not prevented frictions between the CSU and the CDU along the way, the partnership has resulted in electing five of the eight chancellors (all of whom were CDU members) since 1949 to govern the Federal Republic for almost fifty of the last sixty-eight years. There were two occasions when the two parties agreed on a CSU candidate for chancellor (1980 and 2002), but both were defeated.
On September 24, the joint candidate is Angela Merkel, and she will likely extend the record of the CDU/CSU platform.
One of the unique features of the Federal Republic of Germany is the composition of sixteen states with different histories and identities. Of the sixteen, Bavaria’s thousand-year legacy as a Kingdom still echoes, even with its evolution over the centuries through various wars, occupations, and victories.
The identity of the Free State of Bavaria (Freistaat Bayern) was underlined in after World War I and the fall of the German monarchy. Its moniker was revived following WWII, and the CSU has been able to utilize it during its long run as the governing party. To this day, the hymn of Bavaria (Gott mit dir, du Land der Bayern) is often played on public occasions.
Yet that Bavarian badge is not the property of the CSU. The larger cities in Bavaria—including its capital, Munich—have traditionally had strong SPD support, and the Social Democrats along with the Green Party and the so-called Free Voters party are represented in regional parliament.
The next regional election is scheduled in 2018 and the CSU leadership sees the federal election as a preface to that race. Indeed, it is important after the September 24 elections, assuming Chancellor Merkel wins again, that the CSU be well represented in the cabinet as they have been heretofore. Having a significant footprint in Berlin will help strengthen its position in Bavaria next year. That has translated into three slots: Ministries of Transportation, Agriculture, and Economic Cooperation and Development. Whether that equation remains will be determined by the shape of the coalition. The CSU also wields clout in Berlin through the upper chamber of government, the Bundesrat, which decides a large percentage of legislation. Bavaria has its weight to swing as well. Given its relatively strong economic status, Bavaria is one of the three states that can contribute to the revenue pool for less affluent states. That gives it additional leverage.
One of the most contentious issues for the CSU has been the refugee crisis. CSU party leader Horst Seehofer has clashed very publicly with Chancellor Merkel over the issue. The majority of refugees crossed the German border at the Bavarian border with Austria. Seehofer has demanded that there be a cap on the refugees accepted into Germany with far stronger controls. The chancellor would not agree and that led to threats from Munich that the CSU might call into question the common caucus (Die Union) in the Bundestag. That war of words finally gave way to a compromise. How that might fare if another wave of asylum seekers and refugees started toward Germany is an open question. For now, the CDU/CSU partnership is intact.
Yet one more thing is on the minds of the CSU leadership. If the AfD were to enter the Bundestag after the September 24 elections, it would give it an added platform on which it could spread its message around the country—including into Bavaria next year. The capacity for the CSU to win votes in next year’s election will be drawn more from the right of center voters than from the left. If the AfD mounted a stronger campaign, it might endanger the CSU effort to hold on to its majority. Previous CSU leader Franz Josef Strauss once warned the party never to allow growth to the right of the CSU. That will be remembered.
The CSU has one more platform to exercise influence and not to be underestimated: the European Union. The CSU is represented in the European Parliament within the European People’s Party. The chairman of that party group is a CSU member: Manfred Weber. The ability to influence European policy and legislation is of increasing relevance, particularly as the EU copes with the impact of Brexit.
Thinking about the interests both Bavaria and Germany have beyond national parameters is part of the job of the Members of the European Parliament. In that context, the CSU has an additional role to play in Berlin and Brussels.
Looking at this constellation of interests, one can conclude that if Chancellor Merkel is reelected, she will be negotiating a coalition on behalf of the CDU and the CSU but the sister party will be, as most siblings are in families, a partner and a rival.