27th Sep 2023


Why the CSU (successfully) stopped imitating the AfD

One of the first things Horst Seehofer did when he became minister of the interior in Germany in March 2018 was to rename the ministry.

Instead of "Bundesinnenministerium" [Interior Ministry] it was suddenly called "Heimatministerium" [Homeland Ministry]. Seehofer, a prominent member of the rightwing conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) in southern Bavaria, immediately got the nickname 'Heimat-Horst'.

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Heimathorst's staff in those days consisted of six men in suits. They helped him to take sharp turns to the right on migration, like CSU leader Markus Söder did in Bavaria.

The men also wrote the drafts of Seehofer's unconstitutional plans for Christian crosses in classrooms, "a fundamental symbol of Bavarian identity and way of life".

They lobbied against European sanctions against Russia, too, and arranged his meetings with Hungarian prime minister Victor Orbán.

But that was back then.

Now, 18 months later, Seehofer has turned 180 degrees.

And so has Söder, who has become the prime minister of Bavaria. Their U-turn is worth exploring, because it contains a useful message for the rest of Europe, too.

Seehofer no longer targets migrants in his speeches every day.

On the contrary: acting as a chair for European meetings of interior ministers during Germany's EU presidency, he tries hard to broker a serious European asylum and migration policy, including legal migration channels and other essential components he used to neglect.

He is no longer heard saying that Islam doesn't belong in Germany.

As for Markus Söder, he warmly supported Angela Merkel's proposals for a large European Covid-19 support package based on common European bonds, and suddenly loves to talk about the green economy and women's rights.

Both men have also stopped the ritual ridiculing of chancellor Merkel.

Why? The reason for this return to the political centre - because that's what it is - is not only that Söder wants to succeed Merkel as chancellor when she steps down next year.

No, there is much more to it. Read, for example, an interview the current secretary-general of the CSU, Markus Blume, gave to the weekly magazine Die Zeit, in June. The article was hidden deep inside the paper.

Which is a pity, because everyone should read it.

One of the first questions the journalist asked, of course, was: what on earth has happened to the CSU? Blume answers calmly that he can very well imagine the journalists' confusion.

Indeed, he says, the CSU was been zig-zagging. It seems like there were two CSUs: one during the migration crisis of 2015-2016, and one now.

That first party, the old CSU, copied almost everything the AfD did, the CSU's big radical right-wing rival at the time in Bavaria.

'You can't outstink a skunk'

The second party, the new, reasonable, moderate CSU, stopped imitating the AfD and took its distance from it. The reason for this U-turn is simple, Blume says: "Du kannst ein Stinktier nicht überstinken" [You can never outstink a skunk.]

While many politicians would rather bite their tongues than admit having been wrong about something, Blume's openness is both refreshing and instructive.

The CSU, he goes on, tried literally everything with the AfD.

Ignoring it didn't help. The AfD has its own media and reaches many people with its constant provocations and polarisation.

Particularly during the migration crisis the AfD's propaganda machine was running at full-speed.

Imitating the AfD or even overtaking it on the right, which Söder and Seehofer tried to do for a long time, didn't work either because populists don't allow themselves to be overtaken on the right. They just move further to the right, says Blume, and then you have to move further to the right, too.

This is how classical rightwing parties slowly make the ideas of the radical right, a political movement with anti-democratic tendencies, mainstream. Before you know it 'you will end up being drawn into the dark side.'

This happened to the Republicans in the United States. For years they rolled out the red carpet for extreme movements like the Tea Party until they were completely swallowed up by them.

Since Donald Trump took over the party, the traditional Republican party has more or less ceased to exist. It has become a vehicle in the Trumpian propaganda machine.

The Conservative Party in the UK seems to be going in the same direction – outstinking, to borrow Blume's terminology, Ukip and the Brexit party. There are many other conservative parties in Europe whose fate, ultimately, could be similar.

In his 2017 book Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy Daniel Ziblatt, a political scientist at Harvard, writes that you cannot understand European history without studying moderate conservative parties.

He writes that the way in which they react to change pretty much determines whether a democracy survives or not.

In the early 1930, he writes, the German conservatives for instance made the fatal miscalculation to take an abrupt turn to the right, trying to forge alliances with Hitler and the Nazis.

This is why Söder and Seehofer returned to the political centre at the end of 2018: otherwise nobody would be there anymore. They started promoting moderate views, on migration, on foreigners, on Europe.

They also began to contradict the AfD on key issues.

Now the CDU-CSU party is commanding close to 40 percent in the polls. The Bavarian AfD has practically halved, also thanks to the corona pandemic.

Nationally they suffer a similar fate. Since they are now the only ones advocating very radical positions, people see them for what they are: extreme right wingers.

Last weekend the AfD even failed to win a seat on Cologne's city council, making place for the positive, young centrist party Volt.

What the CSU did was timely and smart. You would wish a lot of centre-right parties in Europe the same lucidity.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This article has been adapted from one of her columns in NRC.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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