September 12, 2013 4:45 pm

Bavaria’s PM Seehofer enters final election campaign stretch

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As the brass section and clarinets of the Erding Stadtkapelle settle into a reassuringly Bavarian oompah rhythm, Horst Seehofer, the state’s prime minister, sweeps into the cavernous beer tent to applause from hundreds of supporters.

The leader of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union – sister party to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union – is on the final stretch of a campaign ahead of Sunday’s state elections. Since the conservative CSU governs in tight alliance with the CDU in Berlin, the polls will serve as a curtain raiser for Germany’s federal general election on September 22.

“When I consider what I’ve got ahead of me for the rest of the week, I must say I do think you all have nice lives,” Mr Seehofer says to laughter from a partisan crowd, many of the men clad in traditional lederhosen and the women in dirndls. They have come to hear his portrayal of a proud Bavaria that “plays the paymaster role in Germany and in Europe”.

However, despite Mr Seehofer’s hectic schedule, there are few uncertainties surrounding Sunday’s polls, with voters set to give an overall majority to the party that has governed Germany’s wealthiest state without interruption since 1958.

A populist grassroots party that only fields candidates in Bavaria, the CSU draws its support from all social classes in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic region. Ms Merkel’s CDU, meanwhile, fights in the other 15 states against the centre-left SPD, which is seen in Bavaria as more north German, urban and Protestant.

The only real questions are whether, as appears likely, the CSU wins a majority and returns to governing Bavaria on its own, as it did from 1962 until 2008, and whether its current coalition partner, the liberal Free Democratic Party, succeeds in crossing the 5 per cent threshold to re-enter parliament.

The polls showing Mr Seehofer is likely to romp to victory in Bavaria should be a fillip for Ms Merkel. But two clouds have emerged for the chancellor.

A Bavarian rout of the FDP, which also governs in coalition with the CDU/CSU in Berlin, could prompt some of her supporters to engage in tactical voting in favour of the liberals, leaching critical CDU votes.

The other problem is Mr Seehofer’s campaign itself. While the CSU has an almost identical programme to the CDU, a row about road tolls has created a rift. Mr Seehofer has made acceptance of his campaign pledge to tax foreign motorists using Bavarian motorways a condition for maintaining the CSU partnership with the CDU in Berlin after the general election.

“There are a lot of foreigners who drive through Bavaria and we know that Germans pay road tolls everywhere else,” said Christa Stewens, chairman of the CSU in the Bavarian parliament. “I think it’s simply a question of fairness. We will intensively argue for the toll, and the toll will come.”

Indeed, in the beer tent in Erding, home town of the Erdinger Weißbräu brewery, Mr Seehofer’s call for a road toll wins the greatest cheers of the evening. A party official says the line has repeatedly proved the most resonant in his speeches.

But many observers see the policy as unworkable. “There is no room for debate on this, EU law is crystal clear,” says Christian Garrels, spokesman for Adac, the German motoring organisation. “Discrimination is forbidden, foreigners cannot be put in a worse position than German drivers.”

The drivers’ lobby, which opposes any road tolls, adds that enough money to maintain the autobahn network is already raised through a combination of fuel duties which foreigners also pay at the pumps, as well as the car taxes paid by Germans.

It says some €53bn is raised every year through taxation on motorists, but only €19bn is spent on transport infrastructure and, of this, just €5bn on motorway maintenance – some €2.5bn-€3bn less per year than is needed to maintain the autobahns properly.

But Mr Seehofer is showing no signs of backing down. After telling his audience in Erding that a way could be found to make the road toll plan work, he points directly at a Bayerischer Rundfunk television camera and says: “You can broadcast that.”

A subsequent comment by Ms Merkel to the same broadcaster that “we will find a solution” led Adac to issue a public warning to the chancellor not to “break her word”. She had previously flatly rejected a road toll in a televised election debate.

Quite how far Mr Seehofer will push the case after the election is disputed. He peppers his speeches with repeated quotations and references to Franz Josef Strauss, Bavaria’s premier from 1978-1988, Although Mr Seehofer does not say it, it was Strauss who initiated a party vote that led to the CSU’s only previous break with the CDU, in November 1976 – although this lasted less than a month.

But in the beer tent, he says Bavaria is “rich but not stupid,” parodying the mayor of Berlin’s assertion that the capital is “poor but sexy”.

“Bavaria has never had it so good,” he says. “We’re an island of stability in Germany and Europe.”

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