It was Markus Söder’s fifth beer-tent appearance in four days, and the strain was beginning to show. As the temperature rose and the sweat flowed, he removed his tie and theatrically used it to mop his brow.
The prime minister of Bavaria is a man under pressure. With just four weeks to go before state elections, his Christian Social Union is doing spectacularly badly in the polls. The party, as synonymous with Bavaria as Lederhosen and Oktoberfest, is heading for its worst election result in more than 60 years.
Hence Mr Söder’s impassioned appeal to the 4,000 voters gathered this month for beer, Weisswurst sausage and campaign speeches at Gillamoos, one of Bavaria’s most popular fairs.
Germany, he said, needed a “political centre, a political anchor, a clear political compass. One party needs to point us in the right direction . . . to be the backbone. Bavaria is the backbone of Germany, and the CSU is the backbone of Bavaria.”
That status, though, has taken a knock since the 2015 refugee crisis, which led to a massive realignment in German politics. Angela Merkel’s decision to let in more than 1m migrants powered the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), now the biggest opposition party nationally. In Bavaria, disgruntled CSU voters are defecting en masse to the AfD, which is polling at 14 per cent and will enter the regional parliament for the first time in October.
The CSU tried to outflank the AfD by tacking to the right on immigration — at one stage threatening to take the national government to the constitutional court over its “open door” refugee policy.
But the party’s sniping from the sidelines strained relations with its sister party, Ms Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, and by extension the coalition government in Berlin. Tension peaked in the summer when Horst Seehofer, CSU leader and federal interior minister, triggered a government crisis by pushing for German border police to be allowed to turn away refugees previously registered in other EU countries.
The chancellor eventually put down the Seehofer-led rebellion. But the mood music between the two parties, which have governed together in Bonn and later Berlin for 49 of the last 69 years, remains grim. And polls show that the row badly dented the CSU’s popularity.
“The CSU have acquired an image of troublemakers,” said Werner Weidenfeld, head of the Centre for Applied Policy Research at Munich University. “And it’s one that is proving hard to shake off.”
One recent poll put the CSU at just 36 per cent — 12 points down from the last election in 2013. On current trends it will lose its treasured absolute majority and might be forced into a coalition with the Greens — an indignity for the stalwart, conservative burghers of the CSU.
Mr Söder has toned down his anti-asylum rhetoric since the summer row with the CDU. But in Gillamoos he still talked tough on immigration. Germany must “restrict and manage” migrant flows, and deport all refugees whose requests for asylum have been rejected or who have committed crimes, he said.
“I have no sympathy for criminals who have rejected the outstretched hand of peace and responded with violence,” he told the beer-tent audience. “Such people can’t expect any solidarity in our country. They must make their way back home.”
Mr Söder also promised 3,500 more policemen and boasted about reviving the Bavarian border police force and setting up fast-track holding centres from which migrants can be quickly deported if refused permission to remain in Germany.
He also took a swipe at the AfD, saying the party had a “hidden, secret agenda” and noting that at a recent demonstration in Chemnitz its functionaries had marched alongside neo-Nazis and hooligans.
But some in the audience were unconvinced. “On refugees he was too moderate,” said Horst Geigenfeind, an electrician drinking beer at the back of the tent. “People feel completely abandoned. It’s like none of these politicians really take their fears about immigration seriously.”
Mr Söder also emphasised the CSU’s softer, gentler side, promising a €250-a-month child allowance, €1,000 a year for people caring for sick relatives at home and a big subsidy for homebuyers. In Berlin the CSU has pushed through a nationwide increase in pensions for mothers of children born before 1992.
In addition, Mr Söder has sought to enhance Bavaria’s high-tech “laptops and Lederhosen” reputation with a promise of a new space programme for the state and more high-speed internet access. He has appealed to traditionalists by ordering the hanging of crosses in every public building.
CSU officials insist the party is on a roll. “People are flocking to our campaign events and there is massive support for Söder,” Markus Blume, the party’s secretary-general, told the FT. “What [matters] is that people feel what keeps this state together, and that’s the CSU.”
But one woman watching Mr Söder speak begged to differ. “Their programme doesn’t really benefit me personally in any way,” the woman, who gave her name as Kerstin, said. The party was not doing enough for middle-class voters squeezed by rising rents in booming cities like Munich, she added.
If the CSU does emerge weakened from the Bavarian poll, the broader concern for its allies in Berlin is that this further destabilises the ruling coalition with the CDU and Social Democrats, making it even harder for Ms Merkel to govern.
But there is an alternative school of thought: that a chastened CSU will be more pliant — and that the chancellor might actually enjoy seeing Mr Söder sweat a little more. “It’s actually not such a bad thing for the CDU and SPD if the CSU does badly,” said Mr Weidenfeld. “The CSU is at its most awkward when it’s strong.”
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