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In Germany, Embattled Merkel Faces Fiercest Criticism From Coalition Ally

Statements by Prof. Dr. Werner Weidenfeld

04.03.2016 · Worls Politics Review

After welcoming more than a million refugees into Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approval ratings have seen better days. Discontent with her open-door policy has steadily risen, andso has support for right-wing populists. Her push for a European Union-wide solution seems increasingly likely to fail,while the question of her political survival has crept into headlines at home and abroad.

The sheer scale of Europe’s escalating refugee crisis, the most serious since World War II, has been the driving external force behind this unsettling reversal of Merkel’s political fortune. But there has also been a strong domestic one: Horst Seehofer, the premier of Bavaria and one of her fiercest critics.

Strangely enough, as head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian arm of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Seehofer also happens to be a key ally in her three-party ruling coalition. But for months, he has loudly demanded the chancellor reverse course on her controversial refugee policy, in a style more becoming of a political rival than a coalition partner.

“Seehofer is an important figure in the sense that he heated up the German debate [on immigration], which makes everything far more complicated for her,” says Timo Lochocki, trans-Atlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Last summer, just as the refugee crisis was growing, few establishment politicians openly criticized Merkel. But Seehofer was among the first, Lochocki says, and now he’s only intensifying his attacks on her.

Recently, he drew widespread anger from critics after equating Merkel’s refugee policy to a “rule of injustice,” invoking a German term usually reserved to describe dictatorial or authoritarian regimes, such as communist East Germany. To back up his sharp rhetoric, Seehofer is apparently even ready to take legal action: He is threatening a lawsuit against the federal government on the premise that Merkel, as chancellor, is purportedly harming national interests by failing to secure Germany’s borders amid the influx of refugees.

Even in the area of foreign policy, an unlikely portfolio for what amounts to a state governor, Seehofer also has sent clear signals of defiance. Last month, he flew to Moscow to see Russian President Vladimir Putin, a pariah for half of Europe and no great friend of Merkel, thanks to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. On Friday, he’s set to visit Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the EU’s original anti-immigrant crusader and still probably the continent’s most vocal critic of open borders.

Yet despite the apparent insubordination, the conflict between Seehofer and Merkel is actually something of a German tradition.

Bavaria, a bastion of conservatism with a strong sense of self-identity, has long positioned itself as politically indispensable for Berlin. The fact that its local economy is one of Europe’s largest certainly helps. For decades, the state’s leaders, backed by the CSU party machine, have publicly challenged Berlin in order to boost their political profiles at home, a custom begun by Franz Josef Strauss, the founding father of modern Bavarian politics.

In many ways, Seehofer’s steady stream of criticism is part of a tried-and-true tactic for the CSU, according to Werner Weidenfeld, director of the Center for Applied Policy Research at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Failing to sound off on the national stage would mean letting your electorate down.

“If you were to become a boring [coalition] partner, then immediately the public opinion polls in Bavaria would go down, and immediately you would have problems, also inside the party,” he says. “You have to maintain that every day, every week.”

Mixed signals are also part of the picture. Amid his criticism of Merkel, he has also campaigned for her party’s candidate for upcoming state elections in the east, and even enjoyed a reportedly cordial meeting with Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday.

Europe’s refugee crisis, however, has added a sense of urgency to what might otherwise be considered business as usual, turning the political tussle between Seehofer and Merkel into a higher-stakes showdown.

Because socially conservative Bavaria has been on the frontlines of the refugee crisis—most migrants enter through southern Germany—Seehofer is capitalizing on his electorate’s unease by demanding the government institute quotas for new arrivals. His consistent public attacks have gone hand-in-hand with Merkel’s decreasing approval ratings in recent months, leading some to question whether he’s trying to oust the chancellor.

But Weidenfeld, for one, is skeptical. He says that in postwar Germany’s history, political elites have attempted only once to replace a sitting chancellor, and even then, in 1989, they failed. Moreover, most observers would agree that Merkel remains the single most influential politician in Germany, a status she achieved mostly through her acute instinct for political survival.

“Of course, there is nervousness,” Weidenfeld says. “But it’s not on the level of kicking a chancellor out of office.”

Merkel might also find some encouragement from fresh opinion polls. A survey commissioned by German broadcaster ARD this week found her national approval ratings have grown to 54 percent, up from 46 percent last month. That’s in contrast to an 8 percent drop for Seehofer, to 38 percent.

Yet Seehofer’s antics are not completely harmless, either.

His outspoken stance against Germany’s open borders has coincided with the rise, at Merkel’s political expense, of the far-right, populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), now the country’s third- or fourth-most popular party. Not only has the controversial AfD’s anti-immigration rhetoric found fertile ground amid the refugee crisis, but xenophobic attacks on refugee shelters have also risen at an alarming rate in the past year.

Some liberal voices have criticized the Bavarian leader for setting a dangerous example through his forceful opposition to Merkel’s pro-refugee policy. The leadership of Germany’s Green Party, which is currently in opposition to Merkel’s government, even blamed Seehofer for stoking the kind of anger that led to a disturbing mob attack on a bus carrying refugees in the eastern German town of Clausnitz late last month.

Lochki, the German Marshall Fund expert, says the scale of the crisis might have been enough on its own to unsettle voters. But he adds that Germany’s nascent right wing has also taken a cue from Seehofer. “He legitimized criticizing the German government,” Lochocki says. “It’s extremely important for far-right parties: They need an established politician to basically open the door for them first.”

That door has now been swung open, and the AfD is expected to post impressive gains in state elections on March 13, including projected double-digit gains in one eastern region. An important indicator of the public mood, the results of those elections may help predict whether Merkel will finally change course on refugees, despite her insistence to the contrary. If that happens, no one will be crowing more than Seehofer.

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