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Bavaria's strongman has Merkel in his sights

Statements by Prof. Dr. Werner Weidenfeld

23.06.2018 · Financial Times

Markus Söder is a master of disguise. Over the years he has posed as Shrek, Marilyn Monroe, Homer Simpson and Luitpold, Prince Regent of Bavaria. Now he is poised to assume his most dramatic role yet — the Merkel slayer. Nominally Chancellor Angela Merkel's ally, Mr Söder, prime minister of the southern German state of Bavaria, has emerged as her potential nemesis.

His Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of her Christian Democratic Union, turned a row about how to deal with refugees at Germany's border into a political crisis of such ferocity it could end Ms Merkel's 13-year reign.

Known for his populist, tub-thumping politics, carefully honed media image and extravagant carnival costumes, Mr Söder already dominates Bavaria, Germany's largest state. The asylum battle is fast turning him into a figure of national importance, too.

Yesterday his campaign against Ms Merkel moved up a notch, with a blistering comment piece in the newspaper Die Welt. The chancellor's decision to keep Germany's borders open during the refugee crisis in 2015 was a "fundamental error" which "we have to change". Germany and Europe needed a "real turnround in immigration policy".

More ominously for Ms Merkel, he also hinted the CSU could tear up its almost 70-year-old alliance with the CDU and go it alone, setting itself up as a rival to its one-time partner. The CSU "fulfils a mission as a bourgeois conservative party that extends far beyond Bavaria", he wrote. "It is the force that speaks plainly and acts with credibility."

The row between the CDU and CSU — which pits Ms Merkel against Horst Seehofer, the CSU leader and Germany's interior minister — has been national news for weeks. But its roots lie in the vagaries of Bavarian politics — and in particular the campaign for October's elections to the Bavarian parliament.

The CSU has traditionally held an iron grip on the state, enjoying the luxury of governing alone, unfettered by coalition partners. But that exceptional status is now under threat as CSU voters defect in droves to the far-right, anti-immigra-tion Alternative for Germany. In September's Bundestag elections, the CSU won only 39 per cent of the vote, 10.5 percentage points lower than in 2013.

"Söder is under enormous pressure," said Florian Post, a Social Democrat MP from the Bavarian capital Munich. "He risks going down in history as the man who lost the CSU's absolute majority. And he will do anything he can to avoid that happening."

Since he became Bavarian prime minister in March, Mr Söder has been grabbing national headlines. In April he provoked outrage by decreeing that crosses and crucifixes be hung in official buildings. He has pledged to hire 1,000 more border policemen and set up mounted police units — or "Bavarian cavalry" — in every big city. He has even spoken of launching a Bavarian space programme.

"He is the kind of person who can bring a beer tent to boiling point," said Werner Weidenfeld, head of the Centre for Applied Policy Research in Munich. "But all Bavarian politicians are a bit like that."

Born in Nuremberg in 1967, Mr Söder studied law and trained as a TV journalist — a fact that explains his mastery of visual imagery. He joined the CSU as a teenager and was elected to Bavaria's parliament aged 27. At 36 he was CSU secretary-general, and a regional minister at 40. But that was never enough. "His goal was to reach the very top of Bavarian politics and he has been working at that for years," said Mr Weidenfeld. "He has always been highly ambi-tious." Mr Söder's friends nicknamed him "the secretary of state" when he was still in his 20s.

A big obstacle was Mr Seehofer, then Bavarian prime minister. The personal animosity between the two men was an open secret. In 2012, Mr Seehofer accused Mr Söder of "character weaknesses", "dirty tricks" and being "consumed by ambition". In the end, Mr Seehofer stood down as prime minister last year, paving the way for his arch rival.

Mr Söder remains a controversial figure in the CSU, with many put off by his pursuit of the limelight. He earned brickbats for his forthright criticism of Ms Merkel's handling of the refugee crisis in 2015, when he suggested erecting frontier fences to stop migrants.

Since then, a steady drumbeat of terror attacks and violent crimes by refugees has fuelled an anti-immigration backlash, helped the AfD in the polls and allowed Mr Söder to feel he is on the right side of public opinion.

That partly explains why he has been so outspoken in the current crisis. But the negative fallout could harm him. If Ms Merkel — still one of Germany's most popular politicians — is forced from power, he might get the blame.

"Söder had been trying for a while now to shake off his reputation as a real troublemaker and malcontent, dating from the conflict with Seehofer, and then this new row breaks out," said Mr Weidenfeld. "That could be really damaging for him. People do not vote for troublemakers."

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