Squaring the Gender Circle: Merkel, Men, and the CDU/CSU “Master Plan” Crisis

In November 2005, Angela Merkel became Germany’s first female chancellor, the youngest person to reach the nation’s top leadership post to date. Having lost his own bid for the chancellorship in 2002, Edmund Stoiber, leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), declared prior to her inauguration that real decision-making would take place in the Coalition Committee, inferring that Merkel’s powers would be limited, once Union and SPD party bosses agreed on terms for a Grand Coalition (known as GroKo). The lady-in-waiting replied: “The constitutional guideline powers [Richtlinienkompetenz, Art. 65, Basic Law] also apply to a female chancellor.” Pundits and critics subsequently predicted that Merkel’s first Grand Coalition (2005-2009) would end prematurely, that her subsequent CDU/CSU-FDP coalition (2009-2013) would collapse, and even that a “worn down” Merkel would retire at the ripe old age of 60 halfway into her second Grand Coalition (2013-2017).[1]

Less than 100 days into her fourth term, another Bavarian moved to challenge Merkel’s constitutional right to set the national policy parameters regarding migration, asylum, and border control. Having lost popular support as well as a state leadership battle in 2017, former CSU minister-president Horst Seehofer used another round of Grand Coalition negotiations to push for a numerical cap on refugee admissions, a position Merkel has consistently rejected since 2015. He nonetheless managed to salvage his political career with a new Cabinet post, rendering him responsible for the Interior, Building, and Community (“Heimat”). Raising eyebrows among other Cabinet members, he included the Heimat notion in hopes of presenting himself as the only figure capable of preserving “German identity” vis-à-vis the mass arrival of Syrian, Afghan, North African, and generic Muslim refugees. Only a few days into his new post, he declared that “Islam does not belong in Germany,” a statement rapidly repudiated by the chancellor in her first Bundestag address. Engaged in a battle that he cannot win, Seehofer is competing for the hearts and minds of far-right populists against another old-guard politician, Alexander Gauland (Alternative for Germany, AfD). Securing 13 percent of the Bundestag seats, the AfD co-chair had openly threatened the chancellor on the night of the September 24 elections with the proclamation: “We will hunt Merkel. We will hunt her down.

The “coalition” qua Union caucus crisis that played itself out between June 17 and July 3 was marked by high drama, harsh rhetoric, and no real compromises, the net effect of which has been a partial weakening of a chancellor intent on finding an EU solution to a very complex refugee crisis. The migration crisis per se is rooted in decades of European and American indifference toward a motley array of “failed states” plagued by gut-wrenching poverty and sectarian violence. Watching this poorly-scripted Shakespearean comedy unfold from my front-row seat in Berlin, I was immediately struck by the highly gendered nature of the exchanges that began dominating the headlines in March 2018. Limited to the “C parties” (Christian Democrats/Christian Social Union), the summer coalition crisis had little to do with refugees and a lot to do with the Bavarian state elections scheduled for October. It was deliberately staged by conservative male hardliners who are tired of waiting for the World’s Most Powerful Woman to abandon her post of fourteen years, so that “real men” can re-assert their increasingly irrelevant historical claim to political power.

The summer coalition crisis had little to do with refugees and a lot to do with the Bavarian state elections scheduled for October.

I am not alone in questioning the CSU’s motives in pushing for a political show-down over the plight of countless refugees purportedly pounding at Germany’s door. The number of asylum applications filed in the Federal Republic rose from 202,834 in 2014 to 476,649 as of 2015, peaking at 745,545 in 2016. The total then fell sharply—thanks to Merkel’s EU-Turkey “deal”—to 222,683 in 2017; only 93,316 applications were registered during the first half of 2018. The “unbearable” influx of people who can be legally turned back at one of three Bavarian crossing-points averages five persons per day. As Bernd Riexinger (Die Linke) noted, “I have the impression, that this is a putsch from the right against Merkel. And that is the real goal, to topple Merkel.” The driving forces behind the rebellion were Bavarian minister-president Markus Söder, former transportation minister Alexander Dobrindt, and other disgruntled CSU hardliners who have used Seehofer “in this entire process as an actor and as a ploy”; that is, as an old-guard leader they would also like to depose.

Seehofer fired the first shot on June 17 at an internal meeting with Dobrindt (acting as state party chair) and fellow CSU Cabinet members, declaring “I cannot work anymore with that woman.” Rather than cite policy specifics or even conflicts with its SPD GroKo partners, the CSU attacks have been personally directed against Merkel from the start. Days later, the interior minister fired another salvo, announcing that he “would not be deterred” by the chancellor’s Article 65 Richtlinienkompetenzen from turning back at the border refugees who already registered in another EU state: “We are just not going to put up with that.” The chancellor’s office, he insisted, had “turned a mosquito into an elephant,” although his own claim that the head of a party limited to a single state could override not only the chancellor but also binding EU regulations, amounted to a radical re-interpretation of the Basic Law.

In a further burst of pathos, Seehofer declared in late June, “I will not be fired by a Chancellor who only became Chancellor because of me […] unimaginable, that the person I helped into the saddle is throwing me out.” In fact, the CSU’s attempt to court prospective AfD voters in September 2017 resulted in a 10 percent loss of support, compared to an 8 percent decline for the CDU relative to its “high” of 41 percent in 2013—attributed to Merkel’s popularity. To avoid being fired by “that woman,” Seehofer announced to his surprised CSU co-conspirators that he would resign; hours later he withdrew the offer, which would have amounted to political suicide, in favor of a final “negotiating” session with the chancellor.

Stoiber was hauled out of retirement to accompany the interior minister, along with Söder, Scheuer (now transportation minister), Dobrindt, and others to Berlin on July 1; party hardliners reportedly no longer trusted Seehofer to negotiate with Merkel on a one-to-one basis. Not until they were about to get into the limo did they notice that there was not a single woman in the delegation, leading one to remark, “Then Doro has to go with us.” Seehofer had already faced a “shitstorm” (as Germans now say) in March, when he appointed an all-male team of eight state secretaries to manage his federal ministry; all three CSU ministries are headed by men. To counter public outrage, Dorothea Baer’s position as Digital Commissioner was quickly elevated to state-secretary status, but she actually serves in the Federal Chancellor’s Office (BKA); she is not on record as opposing Merkel’s approach.

Not a single CSU woman was prominently featured during the three-week debate, possibly because they are in such short supply.

Indeed, not a single CSU woman was prominently featured during the three-week debate, possibly because they are in such short supply: only 8 of 47 CSU Bundestag delegates and 17 of 44 party executive-board members are female. Another possible explanation is that Bavarian women actually support Merkel’s policies. Having fulfilled her promise to appoint a Cabinet comprised of 50 percent females, the chancellor sent out Julia Klöckner (agriculture), Ursula von der Leyen (defense), and CDU General-Secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to cover the media and talk-show circuits.

Following the July 1 meeting, Seehofer complained, “I made an extra trip to Berlin, and the Chancellor didn’t budge zero point zero.”[2] The chancellor’s characteristic refusal to “come out and fight like a man” heightened the frustrations of her CSU adversaries, who fell even further in the polls due to their anti-Merkel mobilization. According to a Forsa survey, if the CDU were able to campaign for Bundestag seats in Bavaria (as suggested by NRW minister-president Armin Laschett), the CSU would lose 54 percent of its voters. In fact, 39 percent of the Bavarian respondents identified the CSU itself as their “biggest problem,” compared to 30 percent who stressed the refugee crisis and 24 percent worried about the tight housing market. While 43 percent expressed satisfaction with the chancellor, only 38 percent approved of Markus Söder. Chairing the national Catholic Bishops Conference, Munich Archbishop Reinhard Marx had openly criticized the latter’s efforts to hang crosses in all public buildings “as a cultural symbol” merely to garner votes; Marx then came out against CSU appeals to far-right nationalism.

The CDU closed ranks behind the chancellor with a July 1 resolution, with the exception of CDU-hardliner Jens Spahn who had initiated secret talks with two Social Democrats regarding a possible post-Merkel coalition. Those talks ended when he was forced to return to his “day job” in response to a major care-worker shortage plaguing his health ministry. Ironically, the CDU man opposed to dual citizenship and supporting a numerical cap on refugees is now recommending that Germany import foreign care-workers, in anticipation of aging Baby Boomer needs.

Declaring the “crisis resolved” on July 1—albeit in separate CDU and CSU public appearances—Seehofer sought to save face by finally publicizing his “Masterplan for Migration,” which had only been shared with the chancellor in June. He had not yet revealed it to, much less secured the approval of, his other GroKo partner, the SPD. The chancellor announced her willingness to accept 62 of its 63 points; the sticking point—taking “national steps” to turn back refugees, despite existing EU regulations—was used to trigger the crisis in the first place. When Merkel returned from a special EU summit of ten member states on June 28, with voluntary pledges and two bilateral refugee-return agreements in hand, Seehofer insisted that the EU terms failed to meet “his” criteria.

A Master Plan for Migration suggests that there is both a “master” and a concrete plan for resolving a multifaceted refugee crisis. The Plan is anything but concrete, beyond its polemical preamble insisting that “integration can only succeed by limiting migration”; “appeals for humanitarian protection and engaging in criminal behavior are mutually exclusive” (as if all applicants are would-be criminals); and “we want no migration into our social welfare system.” Ignoring national-populist resistance in other EU countries, it calls for broad measures that will take years to achieve even under the best of circumstances, e.g., a “Marshall Plan for Africa,” the elimination of poverty in sending  countries, improvements in international police cooperation and border controls, the creation of a European asylum system, increasing “efficiency, speed, and quality” with respect to asylum processing, along with the creation of a digitalized “central foreigners’ registry.” The call for “benefits-in-kind” in lieu of cash benefits commensurate with the Constitutional Court verdict of 2012 is a throw-back to the draconian asylum policies embraced by Helmut Kohl in the 1980s.

Ignoring national-populist resistance in other EU countries, it calls for broad measures that will take years to achieve even under the best of circumstances.

The SPD declared his proposed AnkER (Ankunfts-, Entscheidungs- und Rückführungs-) centers for fast-track deportation processing dead-on-arrival. Rather than tackling major personnel problems in his Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), Seehofer reignited indignation with a coy comment that “69 people were deported on his 69th birthday”—one of whom committed suicide immediately after his arrival in Afghanistan. He said nothing about BAMF’s decision to deport a three-year-old born in Regensburg “back” to Nigeria, while granting her mother and newborn sister a one-year stay.

Having already secured return commitments from Spain and Greece, Merkel has cleverly made Seehofer responsible for negotiating formal bilateral agreements with Austria, Italy, Malta, and other refugee-rejecting states. Making it clear that the chancellor was not welcome in Bavaria, Markus Söder had invited a vociferous, foreign Merkel-critic, Sebastian Kurz, to campaign for the CSU. The Austrian prime minister (presiding over the EU Council, July-December 2018) has now realized that the CSU solution of rejecting refugees at the Bavarian border will once again make them Austria’s problem. Italy is not even willing to participate in sea rescues, much less to take back asylum applicants it quickly waved through in 2015. Seehofer suddenly recognized that Söder’s move to form a Land-level border patrol force challenges his own control of Bundesgrenzschutz (federal border patrol forces) functions.

So what have German anti-migration hardliners achieved as a consequence of their failed effort to “topple Merkel”? Mainstream Bavarian voters have distanced themselves from the CSU, and the CSU has lost credibility as a reliable CDU coalition partner. Söder and Dobrindt have alienated themselves from Seehofer, and Seehofer has managed to isolate himself from the rest of the Cabinet. All three have drawn criticism from the Catholic Church and even from Constitutional Court President Andreas Voßkuhle for xenophobic rhetoric unbecoming a Rechtsstaat. Meanwhile Germany’s first woman chancellor is still standing, as the calmest, most competent and compromise-oriented person in the room.

Mainstream Bavarian voters have distanced themselves from the CSU, and the CSU has lost credibility as a reliable CDU coalition partner.

Insisting on “the simple truth [that] men and women are different,” Alexander Gauland declared during the 2017 election campaign that it was time to “stop the gender madness.” Bad enough that Angela Merkel has used her Richtlinienkompetenzen since 2005 to moth-ball the female Kinder-Küche-Kirche roles upon which so much male power has historically rested. Beyond leveraging EU mandates to codify child care guarantees and paternity leave, she has drawn on SPD and Green support to impose female quotas for corporate board rooms, as well as to legalize gay marriage. She has introduced proactive integration policies, granted permanent residency, and opened vocational training to foreigners who had spent years in legal limbo as “tolerated” (i.e., rejected but un-deportable) refugees; she has moreover inspired the creation of 14,000 volunteer centers across the country to deal with new arrivals. She turned over responsibility for Germany’s military modernization to a mother of seven children, Ursula von der Leyen, and when pressed to appoint a new CDU General-Secretary as her possible successor, she shrewdly named a woman with strong conservative credentials, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, as her “crown princess.”

At least one clear message emerges from this unprecedented attempt to undermine the constitutional powers accorded a German chancellor merely for purposes of short-term electoral gain, and it is directed not only at Seehofer, Söder, and Dobrindt, but also at Kurz, Orban, Conte, Erdoğan, and a few other anti-migration demagogues one could name: It is indeed time to end “the gender madness” of populist-nationalism, and to get down to the day-to-day job of governing. What Germans really need are master plans addressing a scarcity of affordable housing, qualified care-workers, remedies for its diesel scandals and traffic pollution, and a long-term fix for its overburdened pension system.


[1] The worn-down characterization stems from Stephan Kornelius, cited in Joyce Marie Mushaben, Becoming Madam Chancellor: Angela Merkel and the Berlin Republic (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017), p. 30ff.

[2] Tilman Gerwien, Andreas Hoidn-Borchers, and Axel Vornbäumen, “Knall und Fall,” Stern, 5 July 2018, p. 26-37.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Joyce Mushaben

University of Missouri - St. Louis

Joyce Marie Mushaben is a Curators’ Professor of Comparative Politics and former Director of the Institute for Women's & Gender Studies (2002-2005). Fluent in German, her teaching centers on comparative public policy, the European Union, women's leadership, citizenship, immigration, mega-cities and sustainability issues. Her research covers new social movements, youth protest, German unification and identities, gender, ethnicity and welfare issues, EU migration and integration studies.

Her books/monographs include Identity without a Hinterland? Continuity and Change in National Consciousness in the German Democratic Republic, 1949-1989 (1993); From Post-War to Post-Wall Generations: Changing Attitudes towards the National Question and NATO in the Federal Republic of Germany (1998); The Changing Faces of Citizenship: Integration and Mobilization among Ethnic Minorities in Germany (2008); and, Gendering the European Union: New Responses to Old Democratic Deficits (co-edited with Gabriele Abels, 2012). Her latest book focuses on Becoming Madam Chancellor: Angela Merkel and the Berlin Republic (2016). Her articles have appeared in World Politics, Polity, West European Politics, German Politics, German Politics & Society, the Journal of Peace Research, Democratization, Politics & Religion, Citizenship Studies, Journal of Ethnic & Migration Studies, German Law Review and Femina Politica. A past president of the German Studies Association (USA), she has also served on the Executive Boards of the International Association for the Study of German Politics and the German Studies Association, as well as on selection committees for Fulbright, the German Academic Exchange Service and the American Council of Learned Societies. She is a current Editorial Board member for German Politics & Society, German Politics, and Femina Politica.

Having received a 1999 Trailblazer Award and the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Research Creativity in 2007, Mushaben is a three-time Alexander von Humboldt Fellow, a former Ford Foundation Fellow, German Marshall Fund grantee and DAAD recipient. She has held guest-scholar posts at the Academy for Social Sciences (GDR), the Center for Youth Research (GDR), the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Center for Transdisciplinary Gender Research (Berlin). She was named the first Research Associate in the BMW Center for German & European Studies at Georgetown University, has enjoyed Visiting Professorships at the Ohio State University, Berlin’s Humboldt University, the Missouri-London Program and at the Universities of Erfurt, Stuttgart and Tübingen (Germany) , inter alia. Affiliated with the American Institute for Contemporary German Politics (Washington D.C.) and a designated Fulbright Specialist, she is commonly known as "Dr. J."