Angela Merkel, Acting Chairman of the SPD Olaf Scholz and Chairman of the Bavarian CSU Horst Seehofer  Michele Tantussi/Getty Images

Germany’s Populist Temptation

After months of difficult coalition talks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel finally managed to establish a new government in early March, only to find that she has a spoiler in her own camp. To shore up his right flank, Christian Social Union leader Horst Seehofer has launched a cold war against Merkel and the German establishment.

BERLIN – Because populism is not an ideology in itself, it can easily appeal to mainstream political parties seeking to shore up flagging electoral support. There are always politicians willing to mimic populist slogans and methods to win over voters, even if doing so divides their own party. This has been proven by Republicans in the United States, Conservatives and Labourites in the United Kingdom, and Les Républicains under the new leadership of Laurent Wauquiez in France.

But the most ominous manifestation of this tendency can be found in Germany’s Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union. The CDU/CSU’s weak showing in last year’s parliamentary election, combined with the unprecedented gains by the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), has created new schisms within the party grouping.

Other than in the former communist states of East Germany, the AfD’s strongest performance was in the CSU’s stronghold of Bavaria, which will hold local elections in October. Defending its right flank against the AfD has thus become the CSU’s foremost concern.

To that end, the CSU’s longtime leader, Horst Seehofer, has already set a new populist tone for the party. He recently ceded the post of Bavaria’s minister-president to an ambitious, younger populist rival, Markus Söder. And as the recently instated interior minister in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s new grand coalition government, he has sought to burnish his own populist credentials, including by restoring the word Heimat (homeland) to the ministry’s name.

But Seehofer has always come across as something other than a German conservative. In fact, he has served as a sort of political godfather to Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán. And now he sees his own opportunity.

Since the day the new German government was sworn in, it has been clear that Merkel’s trademark tactic of neutralizing potential critics by including them in her cabinet would no longer work. Seehofer immediately launched a cold war within the governing coalition.

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In a March interview with the tabloid Bild, Seehofer declared, in perfect populist fashion, that, “Islam does not belong to Germany.” The purpose of such statements is to draw lines within the government and place himself on the side of the anti-immigrant voters who turned out for the AfD last year. Merkel, together with almost all of Germany’s political class, has had no choice but to push back. At the same time, the AfD has lost political ground on which to criticize Seehofer and the CSU.

And Seehofer has remained on the offensive. He seems to make public comments on just about everything, and always in a way that leaves the AfD with nothing to add and undermines Merkel without striking at her directly.

But, again, Seehofer’s “Eastern European” behavior does not come as a total surprise. In March 2017, while Merkel was preparing for her first meeting with US President Donald Trump, Seehofer went to Moscow to cozy up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since then, he has consistently opposed all sanctions on Russia on any grounds.

Seehofer has also spoken warmly of Poland’s populist Law and Justice (PiS) government, while criticizing the European Union for its supposed affronts to Polish dignity. He congratulated Orbán for his overwhelming electoral victory earlier this month, and his CSU colleague Alexander Dobrindt openly refers to Orbán as “our friend.”

Under Seehofer’s leadership, the CSU is shifting its focus from economic to cultural disputes. This is in keeping with the larger populist trend in Europe, evident not just in Hungary and Poland, but also in the Czech Republic, Austria, the Netherlands, and Italy, where the populist Five Star Movement and the right-wing League are vying to lead the next government.

One result of Seehofer’s pitched struggle with Merkel and the German political establishment is that the other government party, the Social Democrats (SPD), has all but disappeared from view. But, whether he realizes it or not, the AfD will be the natural beneficiary of any government blunders, given that it is now the largest opposition party in the Bundestag.

Still, even if Seehofer’s populist gambit fails, he has already succeeded in pulling the government to the right. Germany is clearly acting to ease EU pressure on Poland, Hungary, and other Eastern European countries that are flouting the rule of law and undermining European solidarity with respect to migrants and refugees.

Moreover, Germany will likely block any substantive reform of the eurozone, thus squandering the opportunity offered by French President Emmanuel Macron. At this point, Financial Times columnist Wolfgang Münchau suggests, the best scenario could well be another economic crisis in the eurozone, simply because that might finally knock some sense into Germany.

Seehofer is bad news for Germany, which is in greater need of dynamism, openness, and courage than any other European country. Germany’s limited military capacity, over-regulated service sector, and lack of infrastructure investment all indicate that it is lagging a decade behind Eastern Europe on some key development metrics, even if it is Europe’s foremost economic power.

In Eastern European countries, one can pay by credit card at any street market, whereas in Germany, that is often impossible even in the best restaurants. Likewise, Germany ranks 42nd in the world in terms of Internet speed, and its broadband infrastructure would be embarrassing even to a Ukrainian. For a country that has made a fortune investing in Eastern Europe, Germany’s relative backwardness in these areas is stunning.

The fact that Seehofer is embracing his inner populist does not necessarily augur what Dobrindt has described as a European “conservative revolution.” But it does suggest that Orbán and PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński’s “illiberal counterrevolution” is gaining momentum.

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