Analysis The Center Can Hold Top Story

Conservatives Should Look to Bavaria

The region’s Christian Democrats tried, and failed, to outflank the far right.

Colomanskirche Schwangau Germany
Colomanskirche in Bavaria, Germany, May 26, 2019 (Zsolt Czillinger)

Caroline de Gruyter writes in EUobserver that Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU) — which allies with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union nationally — has moved back to the center after it tried, and failed, to outflank the far right.

Conservatives in France, Spain and the United States should take note.

Hard line

At the height of the European migrant crisis, Horst Seehofer, then the Bavarian prime minister and CSU party leader, took a hard line. He opposed Merkel’s decision to admit migrants and refugees from the Balkans and Syria who had already passed through other EU countries, where, under EU law, they should have applied for asylum. He called for closing the border with Austria and threatened to sue the federal government — which his own party was in — if it didn’t.

Seehofer invited Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, an anti-immigrant nationalist, to Bavaria to strengthen his case. He argued against European sanctions on Russia and for displaying Christian crosses in classrooms.

The result: support for the CSU went down from 48 to 37 percent in the 2018 election. It was its worst result in history.

The CSU’s conversion to right-wing identity politics had been a mistake. 70 percent of Bavarians told pollsters they felt the CSU had focused too much on refugees at the expense of other issues. 55 percent said it was too confrontational.


Two years later, the CSU has turned 180 degrees.

Seehofer, now interior minister in Merkel’s cabinet, is trying hard to broker asylum and migration reform in the EU. (Germany holds the rotating presidency of the bloc, making Seehofer chairman of its councils of interior ministers.) He longer says Islam doesn’t belong in Germany.

Markus Söder, who has succeeded Seehofer as prime minister of Bavaria, talks up the green economy and has embraced a €750 billion coronavirus recovery fund for Europe, which the far rights opposes.

Both men have stopped taunting Merkel.

Germany has integrated its 1.7 million refugees better than many (including me) expected, taking some of the wind out of the Alternative for Germany’s sails. Philip Oltermann reports for The Observer that more than half are in work and pay taxes. More than 80 percent of refugee children and teenagers say they have a strong sense of belonging to their German schools.

CSU secretary general Markus Blume told Die Zeit — in what De Gruyter calls “refreshing and instructive” openness — that his party U-turned when it realized, “You can never outstink a skunk.”

It’s a lesson for conservatives elsewhere.

Push to extremes

France’s Republicans moved to the right on culture-war issues in an attempt to win back voters from the far right. Laurent Wauquiez, who became party leader following Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the 2017 election, opposed adoption rights and marriage equality for gay couples, opposed open borders in Europe and expressed sympathy for Donald Trump.

It didn’t convince social conservatives to switch back to the mainstream right. It did persuade center-right voters to join Macron. Wauquiez resigned after presiding over the Republicans’ worst defeat ever in the European elections of 2019.

Pablo Casado, who was elected leader of Spain’s conservative People’s Party after it lost power to the social democrats, did the same thing. He proposed to restrict access to abortion, reduce immigration, suspend Catalonia’s autonomy and share control of Gibraltar with the British.

Casado’s hope was to lure back voters from the far right, but, like the Alternative for Germany, Spain’s Vox (Voice) was always willing to go one step further: cut public funding for abortions, kick out migrants, revoke Catalonia’s autonomy, seize back Gibraltar.

In snap elections in 2019, the People’s Party still lost to the center-left. Support for Vox, whose extreme views the center-right had inadvertently legitimized, went up.

Republicans in the United States have moved so far to the right that they now have more in common with the European far right than the mainstream right.

This push to the extreme started before Trump, but he has completed the party’s transformation into an authoritarian cult that is unappealing to city-dwellers, the college-educated, racial minorities and the young.

Middle-income suburbanites, who voted for George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney from 2000 to 2012, left the Republican Party in 2016 and 2018. Joe Biden is polling in first place in almost all the states that decided the outcome of the last presidential election.


Defending the center doesn’t neutralize the far right. Merkel and her center-right Dutch counterpart, Mark Rutte, are both consensus-oriented politicians. They moved their parties to the center but left a space for anti-establishment populists on the right.

Rutte learned his lesson in 2012, when he promised that the Netherlands would not support another bailout for Greece. It did later that year. Rutte had flirted with Euroskepticism but became more pro-EU, arguing that the export-dependent Netherlands didn’t just need the European Union for its internal market but as a “community of values” in an unstable world.

When his government was forced by the Netherlands’ highest court to take drastic steps to reduce pollution, including buying out farmers, lowering the daytime speed limit on Dutch highways and putting construction projects on hold, the climate change-denying far right predictably agitated against his newfound green “fanaticism”. It didn’t resonate. Rutte stood his ground and remains the country’s most popular politician. His liberal party is the largest in the polls by far.

On both issues — the EU and the environment — Rutte stopped following to started to shape public opinion.

The CSU has done the same. Instead of complaining about Merkel’s migration policy from the distance of Munich, Seehofer is in Berlin and in charge of it. Instead of speeching about Leitkultur and ridiculing environmentalism, Söder has spent the last six months controlling the outbreak of coronavirus disease in Bavaria and is coaching its companies toward a greener economic model.

Voters value competence and leadership. If you want people to follow you, you can’t be seen as following others.