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Nepotism in Bavarian Politics Creates a Scandal Merkel Could Do Without

Statement by Werner Weidenfeld

14.05.2013 · New York Times

MUNICH — It’s a family affair, but one that is very public and very political.

Bavaria’s dominant political force, the Christian Social Union, is embroiled in a nepotism scandal, accused of confusing family values with rewarding family members. Dozens of party members paid their spouses, children and parents to work as assistants. Some hired wives to run their “home office.” One lawmaker hired his teenage sons to keep up his computers.

The scandal has engulfed this economically powerful region in recent weeks, damaging the party’s image but also threatening Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chances of re-election in September. The Christian Social Union, which has governed Bavaria for decades, is the sister party of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.

“All of the top members of the C.S.U. knew about this,” said Werner Weidenfeld, a professor of political science at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. “These family members were sitting in offices at the state capitol all day. When a party leader went past, there would be the wife of a representative, working. This was not undercover.”

Last month, Georg Schmid, the party’s parliamentary chairman in the state legislature, resigned his chairmanship after it was revealed that he employed his wife for more than two decades, telling the Munich-based broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk that he had paid her up to 5,500 euros ($7,100) a month. When that was added to his monthly salary, the pair earned more than Ms. Merkel.

“She submitted an invoice, and I paid her for it,” Mr. Schmid said in an interview with the network.

Five ministers in Bavaria’s state government have admitted to employing a relative, amid pressure over a practice that, while not illegal, has raised questions over what is morally acceptable in a conservative state where traditional values have political resonance.

Employing close relatives was outlawed in 2000, but a loophole was kept in place to protect existing employees. “That’s not the same as a moral exoneration,” said Heinrich Oberreuter, a political scientist at the University of Passau.

A total of 79 state representatives took advantage of the loophole, said Barbara Stamm, the head of the state legislature, maintaining contracts with their wives or children after the law was passed. Seventeen of them, all from the Christian Social Union, are sitting in the current legislature.

Although representatives from other parties also employed relatives in the past, Mr. Oberreuter said the latest controversy recalled memories of previous C.S.U. scandals. Still, he said he expected that damage to the overall trust in politicians would ultimately be greater than to any particular party.

“Voters will just say that politics is flawed and politicians haven’t earned their trust,” Mr. Oberreuter said. “This affair doesn’t so much hurt the C.S.U. as the parliamentary system as a whole.”

The Christian Social Union has been the overriding force in Bavarian politics since World War II. Like Christian Democratic chancellors before her, Ms. Merkel counts on large numbers of votes from the state to secure her position. Given her overall popularity among Bavarian voters, however, this year it might be the chancellor who winds up helping out the Christian Social Union.

Horst Seehofer, the party’s leader, has moved swiftly to try to remedy the situation. He called on ministers to pay back to the state the amount spent on relatives’ salaries. He also called for drafting legislation to close the loophole, which would be approved before Bavarians voted in their state election on Sept. 15, one week before the nationwide parliamentary vote.

“There are things that people today are no longer willing to accept,” Mr. Seehofer told the Munich newspaper Abendzeitung. “Paying back the state is a good gesture.”

Like Texas, Bavaria is a large southern state that nurses an independent streak. It calls itself a “freistaat,” or free state, rather than a “bundesland,” or federal state. It also has a tradition of protecting its own that some experts say helped create an environment that allowed the practice to continue as an open secret.

Before the scandal broke, the party appeared set to win enough votes to seize full control of the statehouse again — jettisoning the pro-business Free Democrats as junior coalition partners.

“When a party is in power for so long, it leads to a certain encrustation of structures,” said Timo Lange, a member of LobbyControl, a nonprofit group that monitors lobbyist groups and how they influence lawmakers. “Obviously the awareness of the difference between private and public is missing.”

“It further weakens the independence of lawmakers,” Mr. Lange added. “They have that much more to lose if they vote their conscience rather than the party line.”

Though the left-wing Social Democrats traditionally have had trouble gaining traction in the campaign against the Christian Social Union, they are led this year by an unusually strong candidate, Christian Ude, the mayor of Munich.

Mr. Seehofer, the Christian Social Union leader, has had to juggle political problems of late. The president of the Bayern Munich soccer team, Uli Hoeness, turned himself in to the authorities for evading taxes by keeping money in a Swiss bank account. Suddenly the photographs of the two men socializing at Mr. Hoeness’s 60th birthday party last year became a political liability.

Mr. Seehofer and Ms. Merkel are also faced with the rise of an anti-euro party, the Alternative for Germany, which is threatening to pull away conservative voters yearning for a return to the German mark.

Sinan Calimi, a businessman in Munich, expressed disgust over the affair, which he said reflected badly on a state that views itself as an example for Germany and, more broadly, for Europe.

“I think that it is good that they put an end to the practice,” Mr. Calimi said. “What they are doing is no different than what is happening in Greece.”

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