Election results have sobering effect on leader of Bavaria's CSU

Statement by Werner Weidenfeld

MUNICH DIARY: Oktoberfest is just not the same this year, and nothing is as it should be for the CSU either, writes DEREK SCALLY.

02.10.2009 · Irish Times

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NOTHING IS as it should be at this year's Oktoberfest.

After a terrorist warning, armed police officers patrol the perimeter of the huge festival field where Prince Ludwig I married Princess Theresa in 1810.

Attendance has been squeezed, too, by the economic crisis.

For the first time in memory, there are no boisterous crowds jostling to get into the cathedral-sized beer tents.

The crowds may have stayed away but Oktoberfest – now in its 176th year – has at least given members of Bavaria's Christian Social Union (CSU) a place to cry in their beer.

At €8.60 for a litre of Mass, however, it's an expensive form of therapy considering the problems facing the CSU.

There was a time when the party and its bullish former leader, Franz-Josef Strauss, were as unquestionably Bavarian as the sticky beer-tent air, the oompah brass bands and the dirndl-clad waitresses.

For 26 years Strauss polled between 55 per cent and 60 per cent with social-tinted conservative politics that made the CSU, sister of the Christian Democrats (CDU), the friend of the factory worker and farmer alike.

Even Strauss's ascetic successor, Edmund Stoiber, pulled in almost 59 per cent in the 2002 general election.

That's why Sunday's 42.6 per cent general election result – a dream for most European political parties – is a disaster for the CSU and constitutes a rude awakening for party leader Horst Seehofer.

"People are wondering whether the problem is the CSU or perhaps Seehofer himself," says Alois, a 50-something builder with aged lederhosen stained with beer and chicken fat.

Seehofer (59) is one of the alpha males of German politics.

A parliamentary deputy since 1980, he served under Helmut Kohl as health minister and returned to cabinet in the grand coalition as agriculture minister.

He was summoned to Munich a year ago as CSU leader when, in a political earthquake, the party lost its decades-old absolute majority in the Bavarian state parliament.

It was a sign of the depth of the crisis that the conservative party was prepared to overlook Seehofer's personal indiscretions, including having an extramarital affair – and a child – with a former secretary in Berlin.

Critics point to Sunday's 6.5 point drop in support, after an aggressive campaign that matched Seehofer's brash personality, as another sign of the CSU's growing identity crisis.

The party is struggling to attract young urban voters and has alienated its core voters: rural dairy farmers. They stayed at home on Sunday in protest at low milk prices.

Well-connected CSU members say the election has had a sobering effect on Seehofer.

"He's admitted personal failures at party meetings and understands he needs to include more people in deciding where the party needs to go," says CSU member Stefan Einsiedel.

"Seehofer is firmly in the saddle."

But that position is his on sufferance: as the third leader in three years, there is simply no appetite in the party for another leadership battle.

His position safe for now, Seehofer has to get to work retooling the CSU's unique political identity – socially conservative and fiscally progressive – for the 21st century.

"After the recent state and federal elections, we now have four clear, election-free years to start a discussion with the grass roots," says CSU MP Thomas Silberhorn.

While Seehofer rebuilds CSU support in Bavaria, the party's profile in Berlin rests on Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the 37-year-old baron parachuted into the last months of the grand coalition.

Some have suggested the new shooting star of German politics – Guttenberg polled a record 68 per cent on Sunday – as an eventual threat to Seehofer.

In the Oktoberfest tents, opinion is mixed on what to expect next from Seehofer in the new coalition with Angela Merkel's CDU and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP).

Some insist Seehofer is a changed, chastened man; others doubt the boisterous CSU leader has changed his spots.

"Whenever the CSU gets a punch in the nose, history shows that it always has to make itself noticed again. Being nice in Berlin won't improve Horst Seehofer's image in Bavaria," says Werner Weidenfeld, a political science professor at Munich's Ludwig Maximilians University.

"The CSU is weaker, which means Seehofer will get louder."

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