Why the region’s ruling party is playing up its Catholic heritage

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 13-year leadership of Germany is under threat from within her own coalition. The Christian Social Union (CSU), which as such stands only in Bavaria and is allied nationally with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is rebelling over Merkel’s signature immigration policy. CSU leader and federal interior minister Horst Seehofer is demanding a tough border policy which would bar entry to refugees who arrived first in another EU country.

The CSU and CDU have long had a prickly relationship, with the Bavarian party traditionally more conservative, nationalist and comfortable with its Catholic roots.

On issues such as Germany’s bailout of Greece, Seehofer has arguably been a bigger thorn in Merkel’s side than the ailing Social Democrats. But his recent appointment as interior minister, when Germany has taken in 1.6 million refugees since 2015, has made immigration the breaking point for the government.

Bavaria has been the main point of entry into Germany for refugees travelling from the south, and the state’s CSU government faces a difficult election in October. In last year’s federal election the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party performed very well in rural southern Bavaria, and could easily repeat that performance this year. Seehofer and state premier Markus Söder will have calculated that their only hope of containing the damage to their base is clearly to distance themselves from Merkel. Their preferred coalition partners, the pro-business Free Democrats, are also opposed to Merkel’s immigration policy as well as to the chancellor herself.

Söder’s recent move to display a cross on all public buildings in Bavaria is an assertion of the state’s Christian and Catholic heritage when the migrant population is overwhelmingly Muslim. Seehofer has recently declared that “Islam does not belong to Germany”. The cross decision has been sharply criticised by Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, while Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg, who is closer to CSU thinking, has spoken of the dangers of populism and xenophobia. However, Seehofer’s border stance has majority popular support in the polls.

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