Seeon Monastery slowly emerges from the morning haze, and the rising sun paints the Alps, which are visible in the south, a rich orange-red. There is hardly anything more idyllic than on this Friday morning at Lake Chiemsee. Here, far away from Berlin and the riots at the turn of the year, the CSU regional group in the Bundestag and the leaders of the Christsozialen come together this Friday for the winter retreat. In the past, that was often not very idyllic, it was rowdy. But this time things are different.
Of course, Bavaria's Prime Minister Markus Söder launched an attack on the political opponent shortly before the meeting in the former Benedictine abbey. Situations like those in the capital on New Year’s Eve “would not have existed in Bavaria. Unfortunately, Berlin is developing into a city of chaos," says the CSU chairman. And Defense and Breakdown Minister Christine Lambrecht must finally be replaced: "She sticks to the office more than others to the ground," teases Söder. Only: the constant attacks on the coalition and the “traffic light north” are not paying off. The Union is bobbing in nationwide polls at 28 percent.
Like its sister party, the CSU needs more profile, its own issues and motivation from the base - and fewer biting reflexes. And fast. Because unlike the CDU in the federal government, the Christian Socialists have to deliver this year. On October 8th there will be an election in Bavaria. Despite decent poll numbers, success is by no means certain, and a disaster like that in the 2018 state election with 37.2 percent should not be repeated.
In Seeon, Söder and regional group head Alexander Dobrindt are now presenting a plan and program for how the CSU wants to make its contribution so that the Union can convincingly defend the Munich State Chancellery and come back to government in Berlin. Another relief package is proposed, a building child benefit part two, a corporate tax reform, Leo 2 battle tanks for Ukraine. And the Christian Socialists want to be the “alternative to traffic lights” in socio-political terms, as Söder says. "Free south against traffic light north" is the battle cry.
Of course, all of this doesn't sound particularly new. For a party that has governed without interruption since the end of the war – with the exception of three years in the 1950s – it is also difficult to reinvent itself. When the era of a CDU or SPD chancellorship comes to an end, the respective party usually goes into opposition. There she can renew herself. The CSU must do this while the wheel is running, i.e. while the government machine keeps running. That wears out.
What is new, however, is that the self-mutilation has come to an end. At the moment everyone is keeping a truce, within the CSU and with the CDU. What is also new is that the CSU is currently refraining from poaching new voter reservoirs. Overtaking the AfD on the right or hugging trees, as Söder did a few years ago, to go green. Or to be even more popular than the Free Voters. "Our core clientele, the middle class, is big enough, we have to concentrate on them," says a member of the regional group, describing the current orientation.
For the CDU, the winter retreats of the Bavarian sister party often caused a shock at the beginning of the year. Bayern often attacked their partner in Berlin, especially their own chancellor. In the meantime, Alexander Dobrindt and the regional group are pushing hard against the opposition bench. And since this year, CDU leader Friedrich Merz has been the undisputed number one there. Markus Söder now only plays at regional level instead of in the first Bundesliga. Here, too, the CSU must now master the balancing act of being the opposition party in Berlin and the governing party in Munich. With a program that fits everyone and everything. It's not easy.
Outwardly, the CSU reacts calmly to the loss of importance in the federal government. "Being the governing party in Berlin hasn't necessarily always helped the CSU in Bavaria. Instead of a tailwind, it often blew in our faces when we were held liable in Bavaria for alleged mistakes by the federal government," says Reinhard Brandl, member of the Ingolstadt CSU Bundestag. "We can confidently go into this new year with the state elections."
At least the current surveys in Bavaria support this self-confidence. "The times of the absolute majority for the CSU in state elections are over. The offer from other parties is now simply too big for that,” admits a CSU member of the Bundestag. AfD, Free Voters, but above all the Bavarian Greens had made strong gains in the 2018 state election, while the CSU fell to its worst result since 1950, below 40 percent.
But if there were a state election now, the CSU would at least come up with it again, so they could continue to govern comfortably. Of course, a lot can still happen in nine months. And the current positive trend hides the fact that the party is not nearly as well positioned as it seems. Bayern definitely has problems.
The Free State is an immigration country, more than other federal states the destination of German internal migration. Traditional milieus are dissolving. Go to church on Sundays, then have a white sausage breakfast and of course vote for the CSU - that was in the past. The anger about Söder's strict corona policy, many political volts and scandals, energy policy and the quarrel with the CDU before the federal election is great.
In the CSU itself there are the first tentative doubts as to whether state politics should be tailored exclusively to Söder. And some ask why there is currently a lack of publicly known, renowned experts in areas such as care, pensions, the environment and business.
Erwin Huber described the situation of the CSU in May last year as "dramatic". The 76-year-old former party leader and long-time state minister was certainly still under the impression of losing the federal election. Others in the party still do not see the situation as rosy: “It is true that the CSU is facing a number of challenges. Stopping the decline in membership, reviving the work in the local associations and finding sufficiently suitable candidates for political offices, for example,” says Volker Ullrich, the national group’s domestic spokesman.
In a way, the party is a victim of its own success, because it attracts many new citizens to Bavaria. “And the CSU cannot use their home advantage with everyone. We no longer reach city dwellers, academics and young people so easily,” said Ullrich. “The only way to convince them is to govern well. And find a modern narrative with the topics that people are currently concerned about.” Dobrindt and Söder want to write the plot for such a story this weekend in Seeon Monastery.
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