July 2, 2018 / 3:29 PM / 4 months ago

Bavarian conservative struggles to find firm ground between Merkel and far right

BERLIN, July 2 (Reuters) - A threat to resign over immigration policy looks likely to backfire against the leader of Bavaria’s conservatives, who has suddenly found himself with no firm ground on which to stand between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centrists and the far-right.

For decades the independent conservative party of Germany’s southern, predominantly Catholic state of Bavaria helped shore up the country’s dominant political movement from the right.

Bavaria’s CSU was formally a separate party from the far larger CDU that fielded conservative candidates elsewhere across Germany. But, apart from a quarrel that lasted just a few days in the 1970s, the two groups were inseparable.

The smaller CSU, or Christian Social Union, guaranteed that a more fiscally and socially austere voice — with echoes that carried in other states as well as Bavaria — would always be heard within the wider conservative movement.

The arrangement suited both parties — giving Bavarians extra clout in the Federal capital while ensuring that the CDU never faced a challenge from the right. It helped make post-war German politics among the most stable in Europe, with conservative leaders in power more often than not.

But it may well collapse this week, after the CSU leader, Germany’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, challenged Merkel over immigration policy.

Seehofer demanded steps to prevent asylum seekers from entering Germany if they have registered elsewhere in Europe. Merkel returned from an EU summit with what she says is an agreement with 16 other EU states to take back migrants registered there, about as much as could be expected without violating the bloc’s free movement rules.

Now Seehofer, who turns 69 this week, finds himself with no easy way to retreat.

“The CSU has no recognisable strategy anymore, since the weekend,” said Seehofer biographer Peter Mueller, author of “The power struggle: Seehofer and the Future of the CSU”.

“With his threat of resignation and a renewed offer to negotiate, Seehofer has lost the last bit of credibility. The CSU acts like someone who is holding a gun to his own head and then threatens someone else with it. Horst Seehofer has put himself into a dead end, there is no way out.”

Seehofer describes the confrontation as a matter of principle. EU rules clearly state that asylum seekers with pending applications do not enjoy the freedom of movement rights of citizens.

“A MAN OF CONVICTION”

Germany under Merkel, who threw open the country’s borders to a million people during the height of a crisis in 2015, has already done more than its share to integrate migrants, he argues. A centre-right that does not take stronger action risks losing more support to the surging far-right, which entered parliament last year for the first time since the 1940s.

“There are situations in politics where you have to act. I’m a man of conviction. This means the conviction is more important than the office,” Seehofer told broadcaster ARD last week. Asked if his CSU could give in to salvage the coalition, he replied: “That would totally destroy our credibility and mine too.”

But that leaves little room for compromise when Merkel and Seehofer meet again later on Monday to find a way out of the immigration row after failing to reach a deal over the weekend.

Born in the Bavarian town of Ingolstadt in Upper Bavaria in 1949 shortly after Germany’s World War Two capitulation, Seehofer has worked more than 45 years in politics, surviving several foes and feuds within his CSU party.

Trained as a public administrator, Seehofer worked his way up through the ranks of the CSU, benefitting from his affable manner with voters by embodying much of the “joie de vivre” on which Bavarians pride themselves.

Following a regional election 2008, he turned out to be the lucky bystander of a power struggle within the CSU leadership that saw both Bavaria’s then state premier Guenther Beckstein and CSU leader Erwin Huber resign. Seehofer took over both posts.

From Bavaria, Seehofer pushed for controversial policy measures such as state benefits for mothers who do not resume work after giving birth, and the introduction of a motorway toll for foreign drivers. His style and policy agenda were a hit with voters who rewarded him with an absolute majority in Bavaria’s regional election in 2013.

With the arrival of more than one million asylum seekers in 2015 and Merkel’s decision to leave Germany’s borders open to welcome them, Seehofer became the chancellor’s most outspoken critic, pushing for a national cap to limit the influx.

At a CSU party conference in November 2015, Merkel defended her open-door refugee policy — only to receive a stinging telling-off on stage by Seehofer.

This strategy, however, did not prevent the rise of the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. The AfD is threatening the CSU’s absolute majority in Bavaria’s next regional election in October.

Since Seehofer escalated the dispute with Merkel over migration policy, the AfD has gained support in polls. (Reporting by Michael Nienaber Editing by Peter Graff)

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