The CDU and CSU: Hanging Together Rather Than Hanging Separately

This summer has not been easy for Angela Merkel, with a spat over immigration threatening to break up the party alliance between the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), nearly toppling her government in the process. For some observers, this recent crisis marks the beginning of the end for an already weakened chancellor, the current German government, and most importantly the European Union as we know it. However, when looking at much of the international commentary on this crisis, an important aspect seems to have been lost in translation.

Contrary to the predictions of many commentators, there most likely will be no break-up of the CDU/CSU for the very same reason Mr. Seehofer brought the coalition to the brink of collapse. At first glance, the timing of this crisis seems off since the number of asylum claims has declined dramatically since 2015, with only 93,316 migrants applying for asylum in the first half of 2018.

Yet, much more important than the number of refugees is the fact that the CSU is stagnating in the polls while at the same time state elections in Bavaria are fast approaching. This requires a bit of context: the CDU and the CSU have had a party alliance (the so-called “Union”) since the end of the Second World War. As such, the CDU is not on the ballot in Bavaria and the CSU does not run in any other state’s election. As a result, the CSU has governed Bavaria without interruption since 1957.

The CSU has governed Bavaria, one of the most conservative parts of the country, in line with the principle that “there must be no democratically legitimized party to the right of the CSU!” laid out by former minister-president Franz Josef Strauß. Thus, the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in response to the migration crisis has been particularly concerning to the CSU. Never really comfortable with Merkel’s decision to welcome refugees, the party has moved significantly to the right in an effort to ward off further gains by the AfD—fueling tensions between the CDU and the CSU.

These tensions finally came to a head when Horst Seehofer, Germany’s interior minister and CSU party leader, devised a new “master plan” to deal with immigration. Merkel strongly disagreed with a part of the plan, which proposed turning back at the border any migrant already registered in another EU member state. However, Seehofer refused to budge on this point and even threatened to impose new border controls unilaterally. With both parties rallying around their respective party leaders, everything looked set for a fight that would tear apart the “Union” and with it the German government.

Instead, and despite a very public threat to resign by Seehofer, the CSU eventually backed down. One explanation is that the asylum compromise that was eventually reached between the CDU and the CSU allowed the Bavarian party to declare victory after all.

More important, however, was probably the fact that breaking the party alliance with the CDU would be tantamount to giving up its predominant position in Bavaria, the very thing the CSU is so desperately trying to hold on to. A recent poll suggested that the CSU could hope to gain up to 18 percent at the federal level if it were to run in Germany’s other states. Yet conversely, this would also mean losing up to 54 percent of its Bavarian voters to the CDU, more than enough to keep the CSU from retaining its absolute majority in the Bavarian parliament. Simply put, potential gains in other parts of Germany hold little appeal if it means losing in Bavaria—after all, the CSU is a Bavarian party by choice and always will be.

This transparent attempt at currying favor with voters has been condemned both by the majority of Germans as well as Bavarians. Consequently, the CSU has dropped to a “mere” 38 percent in the polls, with the only segment of the population still in favor of Seehofer staying on as Minister of the Interior being AfD voters. Accordingly, manufacturing crises to sharpen its conservative profile, much less threatening to blow up the government, does not look like a winning strategy for the CSU. The CDU and CSU may only be “united in their misery,” as Der Spiegel put it, but united they will remain.

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.

Michael Trinkwalder

KU Eichstätt-Ingolstadt

Michael Trinkwalder was a Research Intern at AICGS for Summer/Fall 2018. Currently, Mr. Trinkwalder is pursuing a master's degree in International Relations at the KU Eichstätt-Ingolstadt in Germany. In his program, he concentrates on issues of foreign and security policy as well as diplomatic history. He is particularly interested in transatlantic relations, the future of the EU, the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), and Chinese foreign policy. Before joining AICGS, Mr. Trinkwalder spent time abroad studying in both the UK and China and worked as a project assistant at the Aspen Institute Germany. He is a founding member of the university group for foreign and security policy at the KU Eichstätt-Ingolstadt as well as a member of the Young European Federalists.