Markus Söder was bursting with determination and strength: As the head of the CSU, he wanted to do a lot differently and, above all, better than his predecessor Horst Seehofer. Even if at the beginning of 2019 Söder was by no means the party leader of the heart for everyone, the Christian Socials subordinated themselves to the new strong man – Söder was considered to be without alternative. Two weeks after the general election, the CSU boss is now facing a headwind that he had never seen before during his term in office – and that is likely to cause nervousness in the CSU headquarters.
In the past few days there has been a lot of criticism of Söder – not only from the CDU, but there are also increasing voices in their own party. The reasons for this are varied and have a lot to do with Söder’s own announcements and goals, which he is clearly lagging behind. Nobody is yet sawing Söder’s chair in the way he himself did at Seehofer. But in order not to strain the patience of the party too much, the 54-year-old will have to deliver in the near future. Five central Söder announcements – and where they are currently.
1. Söder and the relationship with the CDU
The statement of the former Union parliamentary group leader Friedrich Merz is tough: “The year 2021 marks a low point in our cooperation and our dealings with one another,” wrote Merz over the weekend about the relationship between the CDU and the CSU. He left no doubt that he was chalking up Söder: “That was stylistically, disrespectful and sometimes rowdy.”
Söder started in 2019 with the clear promise to provide a new way of working together, a “new common we” of the Union parties. A promise that clearly demarcated the Seehofer era and his long-standing dispute with Angela Merkel over migration policy: This dispute had damaged the Union – it should not and will not be repeated, Söder announced several times.
With Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as CDU leader, Söder practiced demonstrative harmony. With her successor Armin Laschet, the CSU boss then fought a tumultuous competition for the Union’s candidacy for chancellor – and after his defeat he himself contributed to damaging the image of the CDU chairman. Instead of soliciting votes with a joint election program of the Union, as announced, the CSU finally submitted its own paper – some with demands that Laschet had rejected. Until shortly before the federal election, CSU grandees also publicly said that Söder would have been the better candidate. The arranged cheers for Laschet at the CSU party congress were no longer enough to give the impression of genuine unity.
Criticism from Günther: When Söder “södert”
After the election bankruptcy, it took less than 20 hours for the CSU leaders to declare Laschet a scapegoat. In the days that followed, Söder contradicted him publicly several times, further weakening Laschet’s position. Even CDU politicians, who would have been quite open to a candidate for Chancellor Söder, then expressed their displeasure with the actions of the sister party and attested that the CSU chairman was complicit in the election debacle. Laschet’s supporters are upset anyway. In doing so, Söder not only damaged the relationship between the CDU and CSU, but also his own reputation.
At the weekend, in addition to Merz, the Schleswig-Holstein Prime Minister Daniel Günther (CDU) complained about the lack of cohesion in the Union. Laschet was not solely responsible for the election result, not everyone pulled together. Günther also had a swipe at Söder ready: To put others in a bad light in order to shine better yourself – that was called “södern” in his time as a political scientist.
2. Söder and the “one-man-show”
As the designated CSU chairman, Söder sent a clear message to his own party in November 2018. The days of one-man shows were over, Söder said at the time, “they are out”. In many cases this was understood as a deliberate allusion to the still party leader Horst Seehofer, whom Söder had inherited as Prime Minister three quarters of a year earlier. In order to achieve the goals of the CSU, Söder promised that he would fully rely on teamwork.
Around three years later, Söder is accused of such a one-man show in his own party. At the meeting of the Bavarian Young Union at the weekend, there was a withdrawal of love for the chairman, who once also heaved the cardboard signs of the party’s youngsters into the Prime Minister’s office. This time it was different, the applause was already quite muted when Söder was speaking. The CSU boss named as reasons for the Union election result: top candidate Laschet, social upheavals due to the corona policy, mask affair, without naming the own CSU electoral staff (Dobrindt, Bär, Scheuer), missing beer tents, the free voters. Self-criticism? At most if Söder had doubts about strategy and content in the election campaign.
Junge Union removes “draft horse” Söder from declaration
The CSU boss emphasized that he was at peace with himself. When Söder had already left the room and the air was actually out, a remarkable motion by a local JU chairman found a three-quarters majority – against the will of the JU top. In the declaration of the youngsters of the party, the demand to “form a powerful, fresh team behind our strong draft horse Markus Söder” was removed from the “draft horse Markus Söder”. Tenor: It cannot be that everything is tailored to just one person. That wasn’t a riot yet, but a clear warning signal to your own boss.
After the general election, some of the extended management staff have already called for a widening of the party leadership. Noticeable: Especially CSU Vice Manfred Weber is coming back into focus. The Junge Union celebrated him for minutes after his speech on Saturday. Weber said that the union failed to show unity in the election campaign, one more small criticism of Söder. Shortly before, the CSU European politician had made it clear in a newspaper interview: It was becoming “increasingly clear how necessary the team is for the CSU”. And Bavaria’s JU boss Christian Doleschal also gave Söder a message along the way: “Give our generation the chance to continue writing the success story of our People’s Party!”
3. Söder and the CSU modernization – younger, more feminine?
Doleschal’s demand is: rejuvenation. In fact, Söder has already announced this several times. In any case, the result seems manageable on the main stage: In the new state group in the Bundestag, only two of 45 CSU members are under 35 years of age. Among the CSU ministers in Bavaria, only two out of eleven are younger than 45 years.
“We have to ventilate the party and open it up at the grassroots: for young people, women, for outsiders and, above all, for more discussions on the ground,” demanded Söder almost three years ago. The desired expansion of the women’s quota to CSU district boards (it already applies to state and district levels) failed in 2019 after a heated debate at the party congress delegate. There is still room for improvement in the proportion of women in management positions – the important ministerial posts in Bavaria and the narrow party leadership are largely occupied by CSU men. And in the Bundestag? In the new CSU regional group, the proportion of women is 22 percent, at least five percentage points more than in the previous legislative period – but far from approximate parity. Söder had succeeded in ensuring that the CSU state list for the federal election was for the first time equally occupied. However, this had no impact on the state group, as only CSU direct candidates made it into the Bundestag.
4. Modern thematic listing of the CSU
In terms of content, Söder took up the post of CSU chief with the aim of “positioning the CSU clearly at the center of the political spectrum as a bourgeois party”. The inner-party critics of Söder miss the thematic breadth that would be necessary for a real people’s party. This, in turn, has to do with the fact that Söder has tailored the CSU very much to his own person (see “2. Söder and the one-man show”).
CSU Vice Weber recently warned his party against looking for the cause of the defeat in the federal election only in Laschet. Even the CSU did not manage to get their issues across well. The CSU must be a modern, middle-class people’s party and not run after the Greens or Liberals. “We made an election campaign of the present and not an election campaign of the future.” A clear reference to Söder’s address, who claims to want to modernize the party thematically and make it fit for the future. Others, such as ex-state parliament president Barbara Stamm, complain that the social profile of the CSU has recently been too weak.
5. Lead the CSU to old strength
It was Söder’s boldest promise to take office as CSU boss in 2019: “We have the chance to find our way back to our old strength.” With that he put into words what the grassroots expected of him. Because the fact that Seehofer had to relinquish the party leadership after ten years was ultimately due to poor election results. With Seehofer, the CSU won back an absolute majority in the 2013 state elections, but this was followed by several disappointments: 40.5 percent in the 2014 European elections, 38.8 percent in Bavaria in the 2017 federal elections – and 37.2 percent in the 2018 state elections .
Even if Seehofer himself was not on the ballot papers in 2017 or 2018, many in the party found the blame for the bitter losses solely with him. With Söder, a new bearer of hope was just waiting to be called. So far, however, the new chairman has not had any significant election successes. In the 2019 European elections, the CSU improved slightly to 40.7 percent (probably thanks to Manfred Weber’s top candidacy), but in the 2020 local elections the party suffered its worst nationwide result since 1952. And in the federal election, the historic fall to 31.7 percent followed.
The state election in two years’ time will therefore be a fateful choice for Söder. How one can turn from a strong man to a scapegoat in the CSU, he was able to follow up close using the example of Seehofer.