Press play to listen to this article
BERLIN — A collapse in support for Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in two regional elections on Sunday signaled that a widening corruption scandal and missteps during the pandemic may threaten the party’s hold on power in a national election this September.
The center-right party suffered its worst-ever results in both Baden-Württemberg, home to much of the country’s auto industry, as well as in Rhineland-Palatinate, a small western state bordering France where Helmut Kohl made his name.
The Christian Democratic Union (CDU), often described as Germany’s last remaining Volkspartei, or big-tent party, lost about 15 percent of its support compared to the previous election in 2016 in both states, a historic decline that party leaders made no effort to sugarcoat.
“One has to be honest about it, the CDU recorded a disastrous result,” said Susanne Eisenmann, the CDU’s lead candidate in Baden-Württemberg, of her loss.
As expected, the big winner of the night was the Green Party, which held on to first place in Baden-Württemberg, and nearly doubled its result in Rhineland-Palatinate to finish third.
The CDU’s lackluster showing could mean Merkel’s preferred candidate to succeed her as chancellor — new party leader Armin Laschet — won’t even get a chance to run. Laschet, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, is vying with Markus Söder, leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), to be the conservative standard-bearer in the upcoming campaign. With Söder well ahead in the polls in terms of favorability, Laschet needed a big boost on Sunday that he didn’t get.
No matter who ends up running, the conservatives, who have led the federal government for 16 years under Merkel, face the biggest threat to their dominance in a generation. The government’s handling of the pandemic, widely praised in the initial phases of the crisis, has come under fire more recently amid frustration over continued restrictions and the slow pace of vaccinations.
The Christian Democrats have long been regarded in Germany as the party that knows how to run things. Yet during the pandemic, less and less has gone according to plan. From a government-sponsored tracing app introduced last year that didn’t work to a failure to quickly provide emergency aid for small firms, the conservatives have repeatedly fallen short. Most recently, the CDU-led government has struggled to make good on a promise to offer widespread COVID-19 tests for free.
“We’ve got a lot to sort through here,” acknowledged Michael Kretschmer, the CDU premier of Saxony, in an interview with German public television after the election results came in.
As damaging as the government’s handling of COVID-19 has been, the biggest blow in Sunday’s election appeared to come from the corruption scandal it faces.
Over the past week alone, three conservative MPs have resigned from their party or parliamentary positions amid accusations of graft. A fourth, Axel Fischer, a CDU MP from Baden-Württemberg, had his parliamentary immunity suspended amid a criminal investigation into whether he accepted bribes from Azerbaijan. He denies any wrongdoing.
None of the four cases appears to be connected, but two of them involve accusations that the MPs accepted commissions totaling hundreds of thousands of euros for helping to secure government contracts for mask manufacturers. One of the men, CSU MP Georg Nüßlein, served as a deputy leader of the conservatives’ parliamentary group until his resignation last week. He is under investigation for tax evasion and other crimes, accusations he denies.
Needless to say, whether criminal or not, the fact that conservative MPs profited from deals involving protective medical gear during the pandemic is not something that goes down well with voters.
The question is whether the party will manage to move beyond the affair before election day. That currently looks like a tall order.
The scandal has cast a spotlight on what critics say is endemic corruption in a party that has been in power for too long. In response to that criticism, the conservatives’ parliamentary leadership put forward a 10-point reform proposal last week to place tough restrictions on MPs’ side-earnings and called on all members of their faction to sign a pledge confirming that they hadn’t made any money from deals involving surgical masks. But the moves did little to quiet the criticism.
“This panic reaction after years of blocking any attempt to achieve more transparency and introduce harsh sanctions won’t have any credibility until they take steps to implement serious steps after elections,” Norbert Walter-Borjans, co-leader of the Social Democrats (SPD), the junior partners in Merkel’s government, told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.
Conservative MPs aren’t the only German politicians padding their Bundestag salaries with outside earnings, but as the party in power, the CDU is both facing more scrutiny and has more to lose. It is inevitable that the question of political corruption will dominate the upcoming campaign alongside the government’s pandemic response. With new accusations of graft surfacing almost daily, the issue shows no sign of petering out.
If it doesn’t, the conservatives may well struggle to hold onto power. They still lead national polls by a comfortable margin — 14 percentage points, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls — yet Sunday’s regional elections illustrated how fragile their support may be.
Take Baden-Württemberg, where the CDU currently serves as the junior partner in a coalition with the Greens. Sunday’s poor showing (the CDU finished second with around 24 percent, well behind the Greens at about 33 percent, according to early results) not only dashed the party’s hopes of retaking its one-time stronghold, but also raised doubts about whether it would have any role in the next government at all.
That’s because a surge by the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), who won over 10 percent according to preliminary results, opens the possibility for a three-way, Green-led coalition with the Social Democrats and the FDP.
That constellation already exists in Rhineland-Palatinate, but with the SPD in charge. Voters appeared to endorse a continuation of that coalition on Sunday, meaning the CDU would once again be shut out.
Just a few weeks ago, however, the CDU was ahead in some polls in the state, suggesting that the mask affair had a powerful impact on voter preferences.
“It’s an unspeakable situation with the masks, so the election results should come as no surprise,” said Kretschmer, the CDU premier of Saxony.
To veteran watchers of German politics, the affair is reminiscent of the so-called Spendenaffäre, a campaign finance scandal that sullied the final years of Kohl’s political career.
The affair forced the resignation of a number of prominent conservatives, including the CDU’s then-leader Wolfgang Schäuble, opening the door for a relatively unknown former scientist from East Germany — Angela Merkel — to take over.
The mask scandal is just the latest complication to Merkel’s succession plans. She initially planned to hand over the reins to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s defense minister. But Kramp-Karrenbauer, who took over from Merkel as party leader in 2018, decided to throw in the towel a little more than a year into the job. That opened the door to a chaotic new race for the party’s leadership that Laschet ultimately won.
Merkel’s big worry now isn’t personality, but trying to keep her party from being voted out of power.
If her recent efforts to influence what comes next are any guide, she might be wiser not to intervene.