CSU in Crisis-What Went Wrong for Bavarian Conservatives?

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By Markus Feldenkirchen

For decades, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria has exerted outsized influence on Germany’s national political stage. With state elections approaching on Sunday, however, the CSU finds itself embroiled in crisis. What went wrong?

The mausoleum of Franz Josef Strauss lies at the back of the cemetery, in the shadow of the monastery chapel in Rott am Inn, a tiny village just southeast of Munich. Visitors have to climb a couple of steps to reach the spot where Bavaria’s modern-day father has been laid to rest. He is an almost mythical figure for the state — and even more important for the state’s most important political party, the Christian Social Union. Indeed, current CSU éminence grise Peter Gauweiler says of the spot: “It is where our heart is buried.”

Cobwebs cling to the dark corners of the room before the alcove where Strauss and his wife Marianne are interred. In the corner is a dehumidifier that looks as though it may have been there since Strauss’ death on Oct. 3, 1988. The floor could use a sweep.

A couple of days earlier, “Dr. h.c. Franz Josef Strauß,” as the concrete inscription reads, would have turned 103. Two wreathes with ribbons lay in front of the crypt in early September, one of them from the “state capital of Munich” and another with the dedication: “In love, your children.” No wreath arrived for his birthday from the CSU itself.

An elderly couple enters the mausoleum. They used to know Strauss personally, back when he lived in Rott am Inn. Indeed, he and Marianne were married right here in the monastery chapel. The couple stands silently before the grave, their heads bowed and hands folded in front of them. “Thank God that he didn’t have to live through all this,” says the man once they have exited the mausoleum.

The CSU is going through a rough patch. Suddenly, a disaster that Strauss never would have thought possible has become quite likely: a plunge below 40 percent when Bavarian voters go to the polls on Oct. 14. Current public opinion surveys have the CSU at around 33 percent. For a party that has spent decades — minus a brief interlude 10 years ago — ruling with an absolute majority in the state, 33 percent is a catastrophe. It is comparable to FC Bayern coming in last in the Bundesliga and being relegated to the second league.

Nothing, in other words, is like it used to be, resulting in a party that has become deeply insecure. And that insecurity has frequently expressed itself in abnormal behavior, particularly from party head Horst Seehofer, the drama queen of the CSU. The party has realized that after years of omnipotence, it is losing its absolute grip on power in the state. But it doesn’t yet understand what went wrong or how.

It is impossible to write a story about the CSU in 2018 without it turning into a tragedy. The party grew to become the strongest and most idiosyncratic political movement in the country, but now it is becoming apparent that even the success of the Christian Social Union is finite. The causes for that are myriad, and they go far beyond the peculiarities of Seehofer.

Not all of the blame lies with the party itself, though much of it does. It managed to change the state so dramatically that even the CSU no longer quite feels at home in Bavaria.

THE PARTY GODFATHER

“Adelgundis, where is Strauss’ watch?,” Wilfried Scharnagl calls out.

“Upstairs,” she calls back.

“Could you please bring it?”

A few minutes later, Ms. Scharnagl appears in the dining room with the watch and sets it on the table in front of him. Scharnagl, 79, looks at it rapturously.

For 24 years, he was editor-in-chief of the CSU party newspaper Bayernkurier and Strauss himself used to say: “What I think, Scharnagl writes.” Scharnagl picks up the watch that Strauss wore so often, a silver Omega Speedmaster Professional. After Strauss’ death, his children presented it to Scharnagl for his birthday.

Scharnagl tears up. “I always have to fight against the emotion. There is this deep sadness,” he says. “I still haven’t gotten over the loss, after 30 years.”

One reason that Strauss is still so deeply loved in Bavaria is because he did more than almost anyone else to transform Bavaria from a poor, agrarian state where nearly half the people worked in farming after World War II into the industrial powerhouse it is today. It was once Germany’s poorest state. Today, it is the wealthiest.

Dozens of crucifixes of all different kinds hang on the walls of the Scharnagls’ dining room. Behind him sit two neatly dressed dolls on a chair. It is as though time has stood still.

“The development of my party makes me sad,” Scharnagl says. He speaks slowly and quietly. He has had a difficult couple of years involving broken bones and a stroke. “The CSU is a huge part of my life.” Even now, he still makes his way to party leadership committee meetings.

‘Completely Absurd’

When he looks at how successful the state has been, the official statistics, the economic growth and the unemployment rate of just 2.8 percent. When he sees how beautiful and attractive Bavaria is, so attractive that everyone wants to move there. When he sees all that, he can’t believe that his beloved CSU currently finds itself in the deepest crisis in its history. “It is completely absurd,” he says.

Scharnagl has gone through a lot with his party, including donation scandals, corruption scandals and the shockingly low 43.4 percent result it obtained in 2008 — its lowest ever — which forced it into a coalition for the first time in 40 years. “But a result in the 30s? That is inconceivable.” He shakes his head.

“How can it be that the CSU isn’t in better shape given the fantastic current conditions? How can it be that our survey numbers are so grotesque? I don’t get it. I don’t understand people.”

Like many in the party’s leadership, Scharnagl is frustrated by what he sees as the ingratitude of Bavarian voters. And he also hasa problem with Chancellor Angela Merkel. Even though she is head of the Christian Democratic Union, nominally the CSU’s big sister on the national stage, many CSU leaders believe she is primarily to blame for their party’s misery. Horst Seehofer, Scharnagl says, was right when he said the migration question was the mother of all political problems. “But Merkel doesn’t get it. And she never will,” Scharnagl says. “Ms. Merkel is a disaster. She is a disaster for German conservatives.”

Unfortunately, he continues, the CSU has become “an obedient party.” It doesn’t have the courage, he says, to risk a break with its sister party. “There needs to be a confrontation but there isn’t one. It is grotesque how Merkel and Seehofer always grit their teeth and reach an agreement.” Scharnagl has no idea what to do. In fact, nobody knows how to escape the current dilemma. Nobody.

A CHANGING BAVARIA

That dilemma is not immediately apparent if you take a drive through small-town Bavaria. The quaint villages and onion-domed churches look just as bucolic as they always have. But recently, the pollsters at Forschungsgruppe Wahlen took a closer look at the views of Bavarian voters on issues from foreigner integration to renewable energies, from childcare to equal rights for gays and lesbians. What they found is that traditional positions no longer receive majority support on any single issue.

The phenomenon of changing societal values is continuing apace in Bavaria as well — secularization, individualization, egocentrism and differentiation. The Bavarian populace is much more modern, much more German than the CSU would like to believe.

In 1945, the first time that the Bavarian governor was a member of the CSU, the state had a population of 8 million people. Today, it is 13 million. People have moved to Bavaria from across Germany, attracted by the prospect of work and prosperity — and not necessarily because of any particular affinity for the CSU. The party, in other words, is something of a victim of its own success.

The conditions have become more difficult, says current Bavarian Governor Markus Söder during an interview about the development of his party. “Economic success has attracted many people who aren’t particularly familiar with the Bavarian myth.” He recalls the former location of CSU party headquarters on Nymphenburger Strasse in a middle-class neighborhood in the heart of the city. Today, it can be found on Mies-van-der-Rohe-Strasse. Even the name itself, Söder says, tells you a lot. Sure, the Bavarian governor allows, Mies-van-der-Rohe was an internationally respected architect. But, he adds, “the entire district is cosmopolitan. Employees of global companies work here. They are people who have worked in Berlin, London or the United States. You can’t assume that they have an understanding for what makes Bavaria special, the Bavaria gene.”

‘Increasingly Radical’

All of Europe has changed, Söder says. Bavaria cannot simply isolate itself from international trends. Even when Strauss was still around, he says, the CSU was rarely more than 10 percent higher than the average support received by conservatives nationwide. “Name me one country in Europe that has seen the stability that Bavaria has.”

He lists off a number of reasons for the party’s current struggles, none of which have anything to do with him — even though he happens to be the CSU’s lead candidate in this Sunday’s vote, and goes into some detail when talking about the changes caused by the internet and technological advancements. The physical presence of the CSU, the analog element of the party, he says, is still intact. The difference is that there is now a digital element as well. “Digitalization has naturally led to changes in democracy. Echo chambers and filter bubbles have developed that reaffirm themselves emotionally with fake news. Over the long term, they will become increasingly radical.”

In contrast to the analog world, the digital world is more difficult to shape and steer. That has led to a loss of control that has presented huge hurdles to Söder’s party. As such, it is fair to say the CSU is one of the losers of technological advancement.

“Unfortunately, digitalization has led to distorted perceptions,” Söder says. “It is a paradox that on the one hand, we are better off than ever before, while on the other, we are more divided than we have ever been. There needs to be an anchor, a direction, a compass. That is what the governor has to provide.” His goal is to achieve the best possible result for his party despite the difficult conditions.

THE CSU’S NATIONAL LEVER

It’s a sunny morning in September and the CSU is hosting a Sunday get-together at the Ebersberger Alm, an inn just east of Munich. Somebody has installed the party’s powder-blue letters in the meadow out front — and it all looks so harmonious, as though everything belongs together. Almost as if it wasn’t God that created this beautiful natural setting but the CSU itself.

Sometimes, the party is still able to stage this wonderful symbiosis between the landscape and the party, the fusion of attractive mountains with less attractive politicians. “Upper Bavaria is beautiful. Bavaria is beautiful,” calls out to those who have turned up for the event. “There is no more beautiful place in the world.” It is somehow fascinating how he can say such a thing without even a trace of irony.

The inn is packed with guests, many of the women are wearing dirndls while the men are dressed in traditional Bavarian jackets. But the tables are loaded down with more coffee cups and water glasses than beer mugs. That, too, is a break with the past.

Söder speaks of the “great personalities” who have led the state of Bavaria in the past. He speaks of Strauss and of Edmund Stoiber, who governed the state from 1993 to 2007. And, of course, he talks about himself as well. This CSU gene has apparently been passed down, he says. “Just like Coca-Cola, we have a secret formula that only the bosses know. The CSU gene.” He doesn’t mention the name Seehofer. Not even once.

When guests get the opportunity to ask questions later, they aren’t particularly interested in the Bavarian governor’s genes. A man wearing a tradition Bavarian hat stands up. “We met at the pub yesterday and Alois had an idea for how to fix the apartment shortage,” he says. “It wasn’t bad.” The reason for the shortage, the man continues, is primarily because of the large companies that have moved to the region, bringing their own people and driving up prices. “When a large company comes and hires 1,000 people then it should be required to build apartments for at least 500 people. I think the idea is pretty good.” The man’s proposal is met with loud applause. But he doesn’t get a particularly satisfactory answer from Söder.

Political Decisions

The next to ask a question is a mother of two. She wants to know how Söder plans to improve daycare options. “In elementary schools, classes are often over by 11:30. For parents, that is really difficult.”

In Bavaria, many police officers, nurses and commuter train drivers can no longer afford to live in many cities — places that would no longer function without the work they do. It’s a problem not just in Munich, but also in smaller Bavarian cities like Bamberg, Nuremberg and Erlangen.

None of this happened overnight. It, too, is the result of political decisions — or, to be more precise, a lack of political decisions. “Such a thing would never have happened under the watch of Franz Josef Strauss,” says Peter Siebenmorgen, the author of the most authoritative Strauss biography available. “He would have launched a gigantic apartment construction program 10 years ago.”

The CSU has also been claiming for years that it is improving the state’s IT infrastructure. Indeed, the German transportation minister, who is responsible for IT infrastructure across the country, is a CSU member. And yet, there are still huge swaths of Bavaria where you still can’t get adequate mobile phone reception.

Siebenmorgen says there have been two grand promises, two guiding principles in the history of the CSU. “Conservative means to march side-by-side with progress,” that was Strauss’ credo. Edmund Stoiber, for his part, was fond of the motto “laptop and lederhosen,” the pairing of the modern and the traditional. That motto, though, is now 20 years old. Since then, Bavaria has been waiting for the next courageous policy proposal that everyone in the state might benefit from.

Losing Touch with the Electorate

When the event in Ebersberg comes to an end, Edmund Stoiber strides across the terrace, water glass in hand. He is wearing a white-and-blue plaid shirt beneath a Bavarian jacket, but he still fits better with a laptop than he ever did to lederhosen. The guests treat him with no shortage of respect. “Grüss Gott, Mr. Governor,” they say in greeting. Stoiber is still the party’s honorary chair and he embodies the grand, omnipotent past of the CSU more than any other living member.

He orders a plate of smoked fish on salad. “Oh yeah, and I’d like a water,” he adds, before noticing that he is already holding one in his hand. “Err, actually I’ve already got one.”

Stoiber says he has an anecdote he wants to share, one which helps understand why the CSU exerts so much power on the national stage. He speaks of the coalition negotiations in 1983 when the CDU, the CSU and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), who were still the kingmakers of German politics back then, were trying to form a government. Stoiber accompanied Strauss to Bonn, Germany’s capital at the time, for the talks. Right at the beginning, Strauss had come up with all kinds of special demands, a slew of projects that would primarily, if not exclusively, benefit Bavaria. Finally, the CDU governor of Lower Saxony, Ernst Albrecht, pounded the table in anger, protesting that a single state couldn’t keep making demands. He had a few things he wanted for his state as well, Albrecht said. “Well, Mr. Albrecht,” Strauss responded drily, “then you’ll have to found your own party as well.”

Even today, Stoiber loves telling the story and laughs out loud. “That’s it! That’s the difference. That independence!”

And it’s true: Without it, the CSU would never have become what it is today. It enables the party to repeatedly push through Bavaria-friendly policies on the national stage, even if the rest of the country isn’t interested. It is the only party in the country that is able to do so.

Stoiber’s voice becomes quiet, almost secretive as he leans in deeply over his plate. “The church is here in Munich,” he murmurs. “The headquarters. It’s not in Berlin. We make the decisions here.” It is, he continues, a bit of historical luck that the CSU was founded in 1945 and the establishment of the CDU came later. That meant, Stoiber says, that the party’s independence could no longer be taken from it, despite all of the attempts that have been made over the decades, starting with Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first postwar chancellor and a founding member of the CDU.

“It is a structural advantage that can be taken advantage of without having to be particularly intelligent,” says Passau-based political scientist Heinrich Oberreuter, who has been a member of the CSU for 50 years and knows the party inside out. “But it is possible to make a mess of it if the quality of our political leaders continues to erode.”

Strauss and Stoiber were adept at using Bavaria’s privileged position. The former brought industry to Bavaria while the latter brought in the high-tech companies. A booming economy resulted, along with microscopic unemployment rates. But the price for the rapid development can be seen both in the cost of living and in the impersonal ring of suburbs surrounding Munich, where it is difficult to tell if you are in Unterhaching, Unterföhring or Unterschleissheim. The glass-concrete office buildings all look the same.

In a way, those buildings are symbolic of the CSU’s current situation. The party has modernized many parts of the state and welcomed globalization with open arms. But at the same time, it has become colder and less personable. A victim of its own success.

LOSING ITS GRIP

One man who experienced that lack of warmth first hand is Reinhard Kremmling. He has hauled out a large white binder labeled “CSU local chapter” and placed it on the garden table, right next to the bowl of veal sausages. For almost 10 years, he led the local CSU chapter in the municipality of Görisried, population 1,300. His binder tells the story of his relationship with the CSU — a story of alienation.

Kremmling is a friendly 65-year-old in cowhide clogs. He and his wife run a hair salon in the neighboring village and they organize peace prayers in their spare time. His wife is on the board of the local parish.

When he canceled his membership in the party in June, several other local party leaders in the region did so as well. Kremmling pulls out the letter he received on July 3 in response to his withdrawal. It is the last document in the binder. “We have received your notification that you have withdrawn from the CSU. We have completed your discharge and this notice serves as confirmation.”

“Any other club would have avoided such an ice-cold reaction,” Kremmling says. His ties to the party began to dissolve in fall 2015 when party head Horst Seehofer held a speech blasting Chancellor Angela Merkel for not having closed the borders to refugees. Kremmling wrote Seehofer several times to warn him that taking the party to the right as a consequence of the refugee crisis would be damaging. He was critical of the party’s demand for a hard ceiling on the number of refugees Germany would accept in addition to what he describes as a radicalization of the rhetoric.

“I miss the C, the beloved C,” says Kremmling, a devout Christian. “The C has become an empty promise.” He says he never received a response to his concerns from Seehofer.

Ever since he left the party, Kremmling says he has felt shunned in his village. “When you leave the party, you have to be careful that they don’t tar and feather you.” Some people have begun pretending that they don’t recognize him on the streets, he says, while he and his wife have noticed that fewer people are coming to their beauty salon.

Recently, Kremmling wrote to Katharina Schulze, head of the Bavarian chapter of the Green Party. He says he finds it refreshing how she has remained so open and friendly despite the caustic environment. Schulze wrote him back immediately, which he also appreciated.

A Challenge from the Right

Reinhard Kremmling is not the only liberal Christian who has migrated toward the Green Party. The CSU finds itself fighting a battle on two fronts, both the left and right. And on both sides, the party’s foundation is crumbling. They are losing people like Kremmling to the Greens and many others to the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Indeed, many in the CSU have begun pining for the good old days when the SPD was their primary opponent. The center-left party, to be sure, rarely managed over 30 percent in Bavarian state elections, but they made for a good enough foil to mobilize the CSU base. And the party is experienced when it comes to dealing with the SPD; they always play by the established political rules. The AfD, on the other hand, resorts to guerilla tactics — something with which the CSU has no experience whatsoever.

Katrin Ebner-Steiner, the AfD candidate in the eastern Bavarian town of Deggendorf, is running her campaign with four volunteers. Two of them join her at the information stand while two others hang posters. The AfD has 63 members in Deggendorf. The Bavarian AfD chapter has one full-time and one part-time employee, but it has temporarily doubled its payroll for the campaign.

It is an unequal battle. On the one hand is a party that is virtually synonymous with the state of Bavaria, one with 140,000 members, almost three-quarters of all government officials in the state and a deep network. On the other is the AfD, a party that essentially only has a shrewd marketing agency on its side. It’s posters aim directly at the CSU’s Achilles’ heel: “We do what the CSU promises,” is one example. Another: “If CSU is on the label, Merkel is one of the ingredients.” “Both posters do quite well,” says Ebner-Steiner.

There are hardly any Bavarian restaurants anymore, she said prior to our meeting, before proposing a place right on the Deggendorf main square. She orders stewed plums with plenty of whipped cream. She ends up laughing a lot on this afternoon. After all, things could hardly be going better for her. In the federal elections last September, the AfD received roughly 20 percent of the vote in Deggendorf and in the region next door. This time around, the forecasts look even rosier. “It really is embarrassing for the CSU,” Ebner-Steiner says.

A Tradition of Patronage

It’s not just refugee policy that is driving people into the AfD’s arms, she says, and goes on to talk about large and small scandals in which local CSU politicians have been embroiled. There is the state parliamentarian who hired his wife to work in his office at taxpayer expense. There is the construction company belonging to a local CSU politician that received a contract to build a refugee hostel. She laughs. “That’s how things work here. Nobody is allowed to build a fence taller than 1.5 meters. But if you are in the CSU, you can get away with 2 meters.”

The CSU took extra care of its members even during the Strauss era, says biographer Siebenmorgen. An extremely diverse group of people assembled under the CSU big tent because they hoped it could be good for them personally. There was almost no other way to win a public construction contract. Such patronage has always been the flip side of the party’s success, says Siebenmorgen.

The CSU has its spies everywhere, says Ebner-Steiner. She says she knows Deggendorf municipal employees who are not even allowed to stop by an AfD informational stand. “For these people, it is such a feeling of autonomy to be able to secretly cast their ballots for the AfD. They say: It’s time to put an end to the cronyism and the social control.” It is a sense of frustration, she says, that has been building up over the course of several years. The refugee crisis was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back.

On that issue, too, Ebner-Steiner says she doesn’t understand the CSU. “It would be so easy to combat the AfD, but they simply don’t do it,” she says. Horst Seehofer especially makes all the wrong moves, she says. “He’s like a press spokesman for us. It’s like he’s campaigning for us.” His comment that the migration question is the mother of all problems, she says, was fantastic for the AfD. “He keeps putting the issue in the spotlight. And everybody knows that the AfD dominates the issue. I don’t understand how they don’t get it.”

VICTIM OF ITS OWN SUCCESS

The CSU isn’t alone in its nostalgia for days gone by, for their proud past. Almost all big tent parties are currently embroiled in territorial battles, both in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. It’s just that the atrophy is more obvious with the CSU because the party considers anything below an absolute majority to be undignified. But in this era of societal fragmentation and political party dilution, results of over 50 percent are likely a thing of the past.

Still, the party has made a significant contribution to its own crisis. Over the years, it had always been able to rejuvenate itself. It never needed the voters to send it into the opposition for a period of reflection. Their intuition was sensitive enough to make timely adjustments when necessary. But the party leadership has recently lost that intuition.

The most significant failure, however, is the following paradox: Even as the CSU happily modernized the state of Bavaria, it failed to modernize itself. For years, the party has been led by the same type of personality: male, coarse and more or less cunning. There is hardly room at the top for women, much less for immigrants.

Ahead of the party’s convention three weeks ago, somebody must have noticed that all the important speeches were going to be held by men: the CSU’s general secretary, party leader and the Bavarian governor. So they set up a panel discussion between the speeches in which six women were allowed to participate. They briefly addressed issues such as the midwife shortage, palliative care, elderly care and family benefits. Then, the convention moved on.

Peter Gauweiler, the party’s intellectual cornerstone, says that the CSU still hasn’t managed to completely digest the events of 1989/1990. He is sitting on the sofa inside his law offices in Munich and dragging on a cigarillo. He says the party is suffering from a kind of depression born of success. “We have reached all of our goals: Moscow is defeated, communism is over, Bavaria is the No. 1 state in Germany. There is nothing left to win.”

Now, he says, the party finds itself in a transitional period. The CSU must now reinvent itself, a tortuous process, he allows. “But then, a butterfly will emerge from the cocoon.”

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