Germans headed to the polls in two key regional elections on Sunday, with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives bracing for a drubbing on anger over a corruption scandal and a series of pandemic setbacks.
The votes for new regional parliaments in the states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Wuerttemberg are seen as a bellwether ahead of September 26’s general election — which will be the first in more than 15 years not to feature Merkel.
Recent surveys have shown that support for Merkel’s CDU/CSU alliance has fallen to a one-year low at around 30 percent as Germans sour on its coronavirus crisis management.
“Merkel’s CDU is facing a disaster,” the top-selling Bild tabloid said, calling the polls a “corona election”.
Merkel’s centre-right CDU and its Bavarian CSU sister party have been roiled by damaging claims about MPs apparently profiting from face mask deals early on in the pandemic, forcing three lawmakers to step down in recent days.
Deepening the conservatives’ woes is growing public anger about a sluggish and bureaucratic vaccination campaign, a delayed start to free rapid testing and stubbornly high infection rates despite months of shutdowns.
Germans could perhaps look past the “mask affair”, Der Spiegel weekly wrote, “if citizens felt that the government was doing its job, protecting it from the virus and guiding it through the crisis. But it’s not”.
In Rhineland-Palatinate, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) have overtaken the CDU in opinion polls, paving the way for popular state premier Malu Dreyer to head another coalition government with the Greens and the pro-business FDP.
In Baden-Wuerttemberg, the only German state to have a premier from the Green party, the left-leaning ecologists have widened their lead on the CDU. The Greens there currently govern together with the CDU, in what could serve as a blueprint for the first federal government of the post-Merkel era. Opinion polls show the CDU headed for its worst-ever result in the affluent southwestern state. The first exit polls are expected shortly after 6:00 pm (1700 GMT).
Because of the pandemic, observers were expecting a higher than usual number of postal ballots. Strict hygiene measures were in place for those voting in person, including mandatory face masks and social distancing, an AFP journalist saw in Stuttgart, the capital of Baden-Wuerttemberg.
Some German commentators have called the mask scandal the conservatives’ “biggest crisis” since a slush-fund controversy in the 1990s ensnared former chancellor Helmut Kohl.
New CDU chief Armin Laschet has sharply criticised the MPs caught up in the row, joining a chorus of condemnation from across the political spectrum. To stop the bleed ahead of Sunday’s votes, the CDU/CSU gave all of its lawmakers until Friday evening to declare any financial benefits gained from the pandemic. CSU lawmakers Georg Nusslein and CDU lawmaker Nikolas Loebel already resigned last week on allegations they pocketed hundreds of thousands of euros for acting as middlemen in the contracts.
CDU lawmaker Mark Hauptmann stepped down after media reports accused him of lobbying for foreign governments including Azerbaijan, and promoting over-priced masks. He denies receiving any payments. It all marks a stunning reversal of fortune for veteran chancellor Merkel.
Her coalition government, made up of the CDU/CSU and junior coalition partner the SPD, initially won praise at home and abroad for taming the first COVID-19 wave last spring, when Germans rallied behind trained scientist Merkel’s virus measures. But a resurgence in cases at the end of 2020 proved harder to suppress and Germany’s 16 federal states have increasingly gone their own way on school and shop reopenings, leading to a patchwork of rules. Much of the blame for the disappointing vaccine pace and rapid test rollout has fallen on Health Minister Jens Spahn, once seen as a potential contender for Merkel’s job.
Merkel herself has also come under fire, with observers saying the pandemic missteps risk tarnishing her legacy.
“Crises were always her greatest hour,” said Spiegel. “This time, she doesn’t appear to have the situation under control.”