Horst Seehofer: Bavarian hardliner turned Merkel nemesis

Berlin (AFP) –


A folksy master of Bavaria's conservative beer hall politics, Horst Seehofer has become the most dangerous critic of Chancellor Angela Merkel's immigration policies and the man who could end her reign.

Long angered by the influx of mostly Muslim refugees crossing via Austria into his Alpine homeland, Merkel's hardline interior minister has threatened to openly defy her in what could end as a spectacular political suicide attack.

The 68-year-old is keeping Germany on tenterhooks over his next move that could potentially send the government crashing, after he offered to resign during a dramatic overnight crisis meeting with his Christian Social Union (CSU) before reversing his stance.

Seehofer will attempt last-ditch talks with Merkel on Monday, but the discussions will be taking place in an increasingly antagonistic atmosphere.

In a sign of mounting frustration, Seehofer reportedly told CSU colleagues that he "travelled especially to Berlin but the chancellor is moving zero point zero" percent with her stance.

In an earlier series of closed-door talks, Seehofer was also said to have muttered, twice, that he "can't work with this woman anymore," though the leaked complaint was later denied by his Christian Social Union (CSU).

The CSU party boss and now the head of Germany's newly christened Interior and Homeland Ministry has deemed inadequate the EU deals reached by Merkel allowing the return of some asylum seekers.

Instead, he wants to shutter German borders to them -- an act of open defiance that would force Merkel to sack him and likely end a seven-decade alliance between the sister parties.

- Beer and lederhosen -

Though the heated showdown is by far the worst yet between Seehofer and Merkel, it is by no means the first provoked by the Bavarian former state premier who is known for his unvarnished straight talk and political brinkmanship.

Seehofer's power over Merkel stems from an agreement under which the CSU replaces Merkel's CDU in Bavaria, Germany's largest and wealthiest state and home to BMW, Siemens and Adidas and football champions Bayern Munich.

Officially called the Free State of Bavaria, Seehofer's picturesque, mainly rural and deeply Catholic home state is fiercely proud of its culture, known worldwide for its lederhosen, fairytale castles, oompah music and Oktoberfest.

Before the refugee crisis of 2015, Seehofer was mainly concerned with regional pet projects tolerated by Merkel, such as rewarding mothers who raise young children at home with state benefits and charging foreign motorists for using Germany's Autobahn.

All that changed when Merkel, in the boldest move of her 12-year-old chancellorship, in 2015 decided to keep open German borders to a wave of migrants moving through Europe via the Balkans route.

After initially joyful scenes of welcome, the mood quickly soured, first and most strongly in Bavaria, where authorities scrambled to house the newcomers.

Within weeks, Seehofer openly attacked Merkel over the influx.

At a CSU congress in November that year, Seehofer berated Merkel for a full 15 minutes on stage, his 1.93 cm (six foot two) frame towering over the ill-at-ease chancellor.

He has long pushed for tighter asylum rules, scrapping cash benefits for asylum seekers and a cap of 200,000 refugee arrivals a year, to which Merkel finally relented in a watered-down form.

- AfD threat -

Despite those steps, both sister parties took a beating in September 2017 elections as millions of voters switched to the far-right AfD party, which is also running against the CSU in Bavarian elections in October, threatening to destroy its governing majority.

After half a year of coalition building, Seehofer, having been ousted by ambitious rival Markus Soeder as Bavarian state premier, returned to Berlin, where he previously held ministerial posts, to rejoin Merkel's cabinet.

One day into the job he caused a headline-grabbing stir by declaring that "Islam is not part of Germany", contradicting Merkel and rekindling a divisive debate about cultural identity.

His insistence on adding the term "Heimat" or homeland to the ministry's title was widely mocked and criticised as backward-looking and evoking quaint images from the 1950s.

Not to be outdone, Soeder in April sparked an uproar by ordering Christian crosses fixed in all state buildings as "a fundamental symbol of our Bavarian identity and way of life".

But it was Seehofer's latest project that shattered relations with Merkel, a 63-point "migration masterplan" that is yet to be released to the public.

Merkel, however, rejected a key provision: turning back at the border all migrants previously registered in another EU country as a unilateral act that would come at the expense of other member states.

But by forcing Merkel to campaign for a much tougher EU line on migration, Seehofer has already scored a humiliating victory, with Soeder gloating that "without Bavaria's clear position, Berlin would not have moved as quickly".