‘Wake-up call’: Merkel’s CDU party in crisis after defeat in regional polls

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was in crisis mode Monday after suffering heavy losses in two regional polls, seen as a rebuke of its pandemic management six months before a general election.

'Wake-up call': Merkel's CDU party in crisis after defeat in regional polls
Merkel taking part in a video conference on March 9th. Photo: DPA

Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) scored its worst-ever results in elections in the southwestern states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, according to estimates from public broadcasters.

Sunday’s rout raised questions about the conservatives’ chances in the September 26th general election, when Germans will choose a successor to outgoing leader Merkel.

“It can’t go on like this,” said Der Spiegel weekly, saying Merkel’s house was “on fire”.

READ ALSO: These are the dates you need to know for Germany’s ‘super election year’

The rout was blamed on growing public anger over a sluggish vaccine rollout, a delayed start to mass rapid testing and higher infection numbers despite months of shutdowns.

In the days leading up to the regional votes, Merkel’s CDU and its CSU Bavarian sister party were also rocked by revelations of lawmakers apparently profiting from deals to procure face masks in the early days of the pandemic.

Three conservative MPs have since resigned, and the CDU/CSU alliance has forced all its lawmakers to declare any financial gain from the coronavirus crisis, vowing “zero tolerance”.

READ ALSO: Merkel’s conservatives suffer heavy losses in two German state elections

‘Wake-up call’

CSU leader and Bavarian premier Markus Söder on Monday called the result a “wake-up call” for the conservative alliance, blaming mistakes made in the government’s pandemic management.

The party must prove it can “govern well and reliably” in the run-up to the general election and offer a vision for the future, he said.

The CDU-CSU alliance “must give answers to these questions, and it must give them decisively,” he added.

If the conservatives want to stay in power when Merkel bows out after 16 years, they urgently need to “win back trust”, CSU secretary general Markus Blume said.

The first order of business should be to decide the alliance’s candidate for chancellor, media outlet Spiegel said.

New CDU chief Armin Laschet is the obvious choice but he lacks broad support.

Laschet needs to “free himself from Merkel’s shadow” and “say what the party stands for”, Andreas Rödder, a historian at Mainz university and a CDU member, told the Bild daily.

Opinion polls suggest Germans would prefer to see Söder in the top job, but he has yet to declare a willingness to run.

If Söder genuinely has chancellor ambitions, “he must strike now”, said Handelsblatt financial daily.

CSU secretary general Markus Blume called Sunday’s drubbing a “wake-up call” for the CDU/CSU.

If Germany’s largest bloc wants to stay in power when Merkel bows out after 16 years, it urgently needs to “win back trust”, he said.

“We need clear decisions and a clear course in the fight against the coronavirus,” he added.

The first order of business should be to decide the bloc’s candidate for chancellor, media outlet Spiegel said.

A voter casts her ballot in Mannheim, Baden-Württemberg on Sunday. Photo: DPA

New CDU chief Armin Laschet is the obvious choice but he lacks broad support.

Critics say he has failed to carve out a political profile beyond representing continuity in the post-Merkel era.

Laschet needs to “free himself from Merkel’s shadow” and “say what the party stands for”, Andreas Rödder, a historian at Mainz university and a CDU member, told the Bild daily.

‘Traffic light’

Merkel’s CDU garnered just 24 percent of the vote in the wealthy state of Baden-Württemberg, down from 27 percent five years ago, estimates showed.

The state is an outlier in Germany because it has been run by a premier from the Green party for over a decade, Winfried Kretschmann. Kretschmann led the left-leaning ecologists to a record result of more than 32 percent.

The 72-year-old could now opt to continue the current coalition with the CDU, or build an alliance with the centre-left SPD and the pro-business FDP.

His choice will be closely watched as it could serve as a blueprint for the next national government.

Support for the Greens has risen in recent years on growing concern about climate change, and they could emerge as kingmakers in September’s election.

In neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate, popular state premier Malu Dreyer powered the SPD to another victory with a score of around 36 percent.

The CDU slumped to around 26 percent, down from almost 32 percent in 2016. Dreyer is expected to maintain her “traffic light” coalition with the Greens and the FDP, named after the parties’ colours.

Third wave

The conservatives’ woes come as Germany braces for a third Covid-19 wave, even while proceeding with a gradual reopening of schools and non-essential shops.

Latest forecasts by the country’s Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases predict that by mid-April, new infections could surpass the peak seen in December, when some 30,000 cases were reported a day.

Merkel and the premiers of Germany’s 16 federal states will discuss the next steps in the pandemic fight on March 22nd.

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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.