With the federal government now perceived as mishandling the pandemic and corruption tainting the CDU, the autumn Bundestag election is one to watch.
The Merkel era of German politics is over. After 16 years as chancellor, Angela Merkel will forgo another run for office and she leaves the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) much the way she found it—riven by political strife and haunted by corruption scandals. With six state elections as well as the Bundestag general election in September, 2021 will be a year of profound change in German politics.
The early results in two state elections in mid-March offer tantalising clues as to what might be in store. Voters in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg went to the polls on March 14th, respectively delivering a repeat social-democrat (SPD) victory and the return of the Greens.
While it was a bad night for the CDU, the real loser was the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which dropped below 10 per cent support. It had nothing to offer Germans in a year of crisis and is paying the price for constant infighting.
From the viewpoint of the social democrats, it was a good night. The results in Rhineland-Palatinate show that, with competent and trusted leadership, the SPD can still win elections. Its candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz, appeared on German television throughout the night, bringing his plans to Germany’s biggest political talk show. Contrast this with the camera-shy performance of Armin Laschet, the new CDU leader, who did not want to comment on the historically poor results for his party.
There are distinct features to the party landscapes in the two Länder. Malu Dreyer, the SPD minister-president in Rhineland-Palatinate, and Winfried Kretschmann, her Green counterpart in Baden-Württemberg, are trusted as experienced and authentic leaders, more popular than Merkel in their respective states. Many older voters—a large segment of reliable voters in Bundestag elections—voted for them, including some traditionally CDU-inclined.
The Greens cannot take their success in Baden-Württemberg as a guarantee of good results in the federal election. In the region the Greens ran a campaign more akin to that of a new conservative or centre-right party than a progressive force.
As with the CDU, the Greens face open leadership questions and have yet to decide on their candidate for chancellor. The front-runners—Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, current party co-leaders—have an undeniably ‘cool’ image but are untested at that level. It remains to be seen whether voters will be attracted to inexperienced leadership amid the uncertainty of emergence from the pandemic.
All this is potentially good news for the SPD candidate, Scholz—a known quantity, seen as a competent and trustworthy leader. The minister of finance brings a great deal of experience to the table from different levels of government: he has also served successfully as minister of labour and as mayor of Hamburg. The SPD bench is strengthened by the current minister of labour, Hubertus Heil, and the Bundestag member and epidemiologist Karl Lauterbach, as well as by Dreyer and other regional leaders.
The election in September will be first and foremost a referendum on the government’s management of the coronavirus crisis. On this opinion has shifted quickly: until late last year, the German population was relatively content with the federal government’s stewardship. Since then, however, the slow rate of vaccination and the whiff of corruption have caused a dramatic shift in public perception.
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Increasingly, German media are describing the government as incompetent and not up to the job. For now this mainly hurts the CDU but it will also have some impact on the SPD as junior coalition partner. How significant and long-lasting these impacts will be remains to be seen.
Merkel is however now seen as part of the problem—no longer part of the solution. The tardy vaccination, as well as failures in testing availability and fuzziness on the way forward, have deeply undermined public confidence in her leadership. It appears that Merkel’s signature management style, of caution and deferral of decisions, is not suited to this crisis.
So grave is the situation that Der Spiegel recently published an op-ed in which Dirk Kurbjuweit, one of Germany’s leading journalists, argued that Merkel should resign—except that her stepping down would throw Germany into even deeper crisis. But this saving logic didn’t hold true for her party colleague and minister for health, Jens Spahn. Kurbjuweit was even more adamant that Spahn should go—and he has been far from alone in saying so.
Adding fuel to the fire, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, have become embroiled in the past fortnight in a corruption scandal which might haunt them for the rest of the year. At least two Bundestag members apparently earned substantial kickbacks in arrangements linked to the public procurement of face masks last spring. This became public at the beginning of March and is being compared to the scandal which emerged in 1999 of a record of secret donations to the CDU, under the leadership of Helmut Kohl, which tainted the party for years.
While the two members have been forced to step down, leadership has been absent from Laschet, the CDU chair. Compounding the crisis, accusations have emerged that two or more CDU Bundestag representatives are on the payroll of the government of Azerbaijan.
Many voters in the state elections had already cast their ballots by mail in late February or early March. This should be troubling for the CDU: its disappointing results might have been even worse had those voters known about these ethical lapses.
In this volatile context, the only certainty this year is that the federal election will matter more than ever. For the party that manages to climb above the noise, prepare well and seize the opportunity, the rewards in a post-Merkel Germany could be great.
Knut Dethlefsen serves as the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung representative to the US and Canada. Previously, he led FES offices in Warsaw, Jerusalem and Shanghai and was head of its Asia and Pacific Department in Berlin.