Corona & Politics in the Election Year
Increasing number of COVID-19 cases (and deaths), a slow vaccine roll out, continued lockdown, growing frustration among the people, an anti-covid lockdown movement, multiple political scandals and Angela Merkel’s impending exit…The possible manifestations of these factors, in isolation or as a combination, is anything but good news for the ruling coalition in what happens to be a year of elections in Germany.
The irony being, even when the world is aware that Merkel is stepping down later this year #MerkelMussWeg [Merkel has to go] is still trending on social media. Blame it on the lockdown movement
Germany’s vaccination drive has not gone about as planned, and the vaccine roll out has progressed at a snail’s pace. According to media reports less than 10% of the population had received at least a first vaccine dose and less than 5% had received both doses at the beginning of the fourth week of March.
The number of total cases is close to 2.7 million while the number of recorded deaths passed the 75,000-mark in the third week of March and is fast approaching the 80k-mark. Worse still, the number of daily deaths per capita in Germany is now higher than both the United States and Great Britain, two of the most severely affected countries which have now managed to cut down the number of deaths courtesy of a speedy vaccination campaign.
With continued increase in numbers, and no clear-cut solution in the horizon, Europe’s largest economy has been forced to impose one lockdown after another for the last five months. What began as lockdown light in November witnessed a tightening of measures in December, and it has been the case of one extension after another since.
In early March the German government decided on a gradual relaxation — a step by step easing of restrictions with an emergency brake (Notbremse) and automatic cancellation in case the numbers go up again. The situation would have been monitored till the end of March, with the possibility of opening up further for Easter. However, the British variant (lineage B.1.1.7) and the onset of Dritte Welle (Third Wave) has put paid to those hopes, forcing the government to apply the emergency brake.
Worse still, even as Germany is in the middle of Dritte Welle (Third Wave) with the number of new infections increasing exponentially and vaccination making slow progress, the Chancellor and the heads of the 16 states do not seem to be able to agree on a unified line.
Following extensive discussions with all the cabinet ministers and the state heads on 23 March the Angela Merkel government decided to extend the lockdown further till April 18, significantly tighten the measures over the Easter weekend (April 1–5) — fearing another festivity-related spike in cases, a la Christmas. However, a day later Merkel did a volte-face, reversing plans for a stringent lockdown over Easter, and taking full responsibility for the earlier decisions and even seeking an apology.
“We basically have a new pandemic. We must try to slow down the third wave of the pandemic. Nevertheless, it was a mistake. At the end of the day, I carry the last responsibility,” Merkel was quoted during a press conference. “The entire process is causing additional uncertainty, for which I ask all citizens’ forgiveness.
“It’s now important for me to say so here. A mistake should be called a mistake and above all, it should be corrected, preferably in good time,” she added. The reversal of the government’s earlier decision, and the waiver of Osterruhetage (Easter Rest Days) is not just a kneejerk reaction to the sharp criticisms from all quarters but also an attempt to appease public sentiments and paper over the political gaffe that have happened over the last few weeks — something that is already affecting Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and their ally, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
Corona und Politik im Wahljahr
It is election year in Germany, and if criticisms over the slow rollout of the vaccine program wasn’t enough the ruling CDU/CSU alliance is also facing accusations of graft. Not to forget there are multiple reports of a growing number of political scandals, mostly over business deals related to the procurement of face masks, in the German media. For starters, two conservative German politicians, accused of benefitting from mask sale, are being investigated and have already resigned from their respective parties.
Nikolas Löbel, an ex-MP for Merkel’s CDU, succumbed to continued pressure and put down his papers after revelations that his company earned commissions to the tune of €250,000 for brokering sales contracts. Likewise, Georg Nüsslein, from the CSU, is also accusations he received €660,000 to lobby for a mask supplier.
Another politician giving up his party posts after coming under investigation for corruption over mask procurement contracts is Alfred Sauter, the former state justice minister for Bavaria, who’s alleged to have used his position as member of the state parliament to serve business interests in another case. There have even been calls from various quarters for the resignation of Jens Spahn, the health minister.
Reports that have emerged concerning a mask deal between the health ministry and Hubert Burda Media GmbH, a media company Daniel Funke, Spahn’s husband works for, putting the latter in the spotlight. According to the report, the company sold the health ministry around 570,000 masks for around €909,452 last April, when the country was grappling with a protective mask supply shortage.
Recent surveys indicate more than 75 per cent of Germans are critical of the government’s crisis management, this being the highest since the beginning of the pandemic. On the other hand less than 25 per cent Germans are currently satisfied with the measures in place.
Continued restrictions, lack of systematic vaccination and with no visible conclusion a corona-fatigue has palpably set in among the Germans. Add to it these reports of corruption, and it is ample fodder for the citizens to blame the politicians and their incompetence for the current situation. In a year when the country goes to the polls it is anything but good news.
Die aktuelle Regierung ist so lächerlich (The current government is so ridiculous), Diese Regierung hat den verstand verloren (this government has lost its mind) and Wie unfähig ist den die deutsche Regierung überhaupt? (How incompetent is the German government anyway?) are common reactions one gets to hear when talking to the Germans these days.
While Merkel, who has been Die Kanzlerin (The Chancellor) since 2005 and has been a powerful presence in not only German politics but also the whole of Europe, will be stepping down it is her party that is going to bear the brunt of the public ire. Merkel’s departure as party leader has already left an uncertainty at the top, and her first choice of successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was earlier this year replaced by Armin Laschet — a leader whom Merkel criticized recently for the implementation, rather lack of it of the corona emergency brake.
North Rhine-Westphalia, a state of which CDU leader Laschet is the Prime Minister, according to the Chancellor is “a state which has chosen an implementation that entails too much discretion. Some are not aware of the seriousness.” While Laschet immediately defended the applicable corona regulations in his state it’s clear that Merkel doesn’t have full confidence in his abilities when it comes to guiding the party forward.
In such a scenario her party’s declining influence could prove detrimental for the immediate future of German politics. Recent results has possibly set the ball rolling.
In third week of March Merkel’s party took a hit in the state elections of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. The elections were deemed as the first major political test of the election year, and the results are a clear indication that the slow vaccine rollout and the multiple recent scandals has potentially damaged the party’s prospects.
With just six months to go before the country’s general election (in September), it is anything but good news for the ruling coalition.
The irony being, even when the world is aware that Merkel is stepping down later this year #MerkelMussWeg [Merkel has to go] is still trending on Twitter. Blame it on the anti-Covid lockdown movement labeled the Querdenker (lateral thinkers).
This group that has gained momentum since last year, attracting support from various quarters for its many anti-lockdown demonstrations. Last heard, the country’s domestic intelligence agency has put sections of the movement under observation. It is feared that the movement’s agenda is beyond demonstrating against lockdown, and undermines the authority of the state.