Slipping Polls Show Strains on Merkel’s Leadership Ahead of Key State Elections

By James Carstensen | October 10, 2018 | 12:54 AM EDT

Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) at a session of the Bundestag on September 12, 2018 in Berlin. (Photo by Michele Tantussi/Getty Images)

Berlin ( – Ahead of two important state elections, poll figures suggest a political shake-up is in store for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, with her key Bavarian ally likely to lose its historically-held majority.

A poll published by Bild on Tuesday placed the Christian Social Union (CSU) – the “sister” party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – at 33 percent in Bavaria (down from previous months at around 40), with the Greens party at 18 percent followed by the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) at 14 percent.

In another state, Hesse, the poll projected the CDU would fall to around 29 percent when voters go to the polls on October 28. That marks a drop of 10 percentage points since the last election, five years ago.

The Bavarian election, scheduled for October 14, may be the most distressing for Merkel, however. If the CSU loses its majority as projected, a coalition will be needed to stay in power. That it turn would dilute the CSU’s (and by extension Merkel’s) influence on the region.

“This will be an election of historical dimensions,” Prof. Heinrich Oberreuter, a political scientist at the Free University Berlin told The Local on Tuesday.

The CSU has enjoyed a majority in Bavaria for most of the post-war era. If the CSU loses it, that would not only alter the political landscape in the region, but send a signal to Berlin, he said.

Oberreuter’s comments refer to tensions that have placed Merkel’s leadership under strain on numerous fronts – but particularly CDU-CSU divisions on immigration, which helped the anti-immigrant AfD to capture votes.

At several points – most recently last month – polls have even found the AfD to be the second most popular party in polls nationally, behind Merkel’s CDU.

David McAllister of the CDU, a German member of the European parliament, told local media that although at least 85 percent of Germans remain opposed to the far right, rising AfD polls numbers were worrying, and must be addressed.

“The AfD is a challenge for the whole political system in Germany, not only for my party,” he told the DW broadcaster.

Despite being a valuable strategic ally to Merkel, the CSU holds more conservative views toward immigration, putting it at odds with the chancellor.

In June Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, a CSU member, challenged Merkel’s leadership with an ultimatum, effectively threatening a withdrawal of the CSU/CDU partnership if Merkel did not allow him to turn away asylum-seekers at the Bavarian border.

Seehofer continued to create difficulties for her last month, over a row following the sacking of the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency. The official, who was accused of sharing information with a newspaper without authorization, was hastily moved to Seehofer’s ministry – effectively a promotion with a pay rise – sparking a public outcry.

In a bid to reverse sliding polls, Merkel called on the CDU/CSU to put disputes behind it and improve unity.

“I know that through our disputes we have contributed to making the polls look as they do,” she was quoted as telling a CDU/CSU youth wing in northern Germany at the weekend. “Voters don’t appreciate it if we argue and they don’t even understand what we’re arguing about.”

It is unclear how the CSU would respond to a loss of its majority in Bavaria.

Although the Green party is stronger in the state than the AfD, a CSU-Green coalition would be difficult due to significant disagreements between the two over energy, migration, and other policies.

As the same time, however, CSU leaders have categorically ruled out a partnership with the AfD. Seehofer in an interview Sunday said his party has no interest in a right-wing coalition, despite its conservative stance on immigration.

And earlier, CSU general secretary Markus Blume implied that a partnership with the AfD would be unacceptable, saying the party was too radical and that it was in the interests of security, law, and order for the CSU to regain the confidence of Bavarian voters.

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