How the pandemic turned German politics upside down

A demonstrator in Berlin protests anti-coronavirus measures on March 28. (John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)
A demonstrator in Berlin protests anti-coronavirus measures on March 28. (John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)

In Germany, politics is supposed to be dull. Everything about the system — its carefully calibrated federalism, support for the European Union and emphasis on coalitions and consensus — is calculated to keep public life as stable as possible. Under normal conditions it works well enough — even if it often puts outsiders to sleep.

But then came the pandemic. Covid-19 has upended the country in ways that no pundit could have ever predicted. Infection rates are soaring. The government is sitting on an unused pile of millions of vaccines as Germans clamor for shots. Corruption scandals are popping up in the ruling party, the Christian Democrats, like holes spouting water in a sinking ship. In the sixth month of lockdown, discontent and frustration are boiling over — just as the political class faces the task of finding a successor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Things didn’t look so bad a year ago. Early in the pandemic, Germany won international plaudits for its meticulous contact tracing, early lockdowns and generous support for beleaguered companies. Especially when compared with the Trump administration’s chaotic pandemic response, Germany shone with its Teutonic efficiency and common sense. But as new variants of the virus proliferated, and as the policy emphasis shifted to flexible adaptation and fast vaccine rollouts, Germany stumbled.

Now only 14.6 percent of the population has received at least one vaccine dose, compared with 33.5 percent in the United States, 46.7 percent in Britain and 61.3 percent in Israel. Some of the decisions taken by German authorities boggle the mind. The British-produced AstraZeneca vaccine — a key component of the European vaccination effort — was at first approved only for people under 65, then for everyone, then withdrawn, then reinstated and finally approved for people over 60. Simply following rules no longer seems like the best way to deal with pandemic.

The most prominent political victim of the mess is Chancellor Angela Merkel. Never was this clearer than late last month, when Merkel was forced to apologize and roll back new restrictions for the Easter holiday she had announced only 34 hours before.

Germany had desperately needed a new strategy. Case numbers were rising, some Germans were planning to head off to Miami-like partying sprees in Spain, and restrictions were being loosened, not tightened. Yet 15 hours of Merkel’s negotiations with the governors of Germany’s 16 states produced restrictions that couldn’t work in practice. Even the leaders who had agreed to them were dumping parts of them just hours after they were announced. Among the recalcitrant governors was Armin Laschet, the new head of Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union. It was the kind of open political break unprecedented in German politics.

The failure to get her party ducklings in a row marked Merkel as a lame duck. Merkel’s plans to step down ahead of the fall election have long been known, but now she has finally hit her political expiration date. She is no longer the political titan she was in 2015 when she overcame political opposition to welcome 1.2 million refugees and migrants into Germany and became a leading figure of liberal democratic order. Now she has to spend hours negotiating with governors and then call them out on national TV to try and get them to do their jobs.

These failings, combined with several members of parliament receiving kickbacks for securing government contracts for personal protective equipment, have trashed the Christian Democrats’ trademark brand of dull competence. Now voters are inclined to see Merkel’s party as part of the problem. In a national television interview, an exasperated Merkel felt the need to remind her party that they had no “automatic right” to run the country.

Yet Merkel’s would-be successors are faring even worse. The health minister is struggling to explain not only why the country is suffering from a shortage of shots when one of the most desirable vaccines was developed in Germany — but also why the country is lagging behind so badly on getting shots into arms. (The answer seems to be a plethora of overly bureaucratic restrictions, including a slow expansion of vaccination sites and failure to stop vaccine centers from closing on weekends and holidays.)

Meanwhile, Christian Democrat leader Laschet for some reason thought it was a good idea to try and water down covid-19 restrictions even though nearly half of Germans support tougher measures. He has since pivoted, supporting a vaguely defined “lockdown bridge,” but these political lapses have caused members of his party to back his main rival, Bavarian governor Markus Söder. Had a Bavarian from the conservative south ever led the alliance to electoral victory, the move might seem less desperate.

The collapse of the conservatives in the polls and record low performances in two regional elections have made previously unthinkable national coalitions suddenly seem possible. But that seems to ensure that whoever takes Merkel’s place in the fall will be too busy trying to put out domestic political fires and manage wobbly coalitions to fill her role on the world stage and in German politics.

Unfortunately, the one thing the pandemic seems to have shown is that it takes a strong chancellor to make Germany’s bureaucratic system work. And it doesn’t look like the country is going to have one for some time to come.

Ian Bateson is a journalist based in Berlin.

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