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ANALYSIS: Germany’s rising Covid cases and state elections mean Merkel’s CDU could be in for a shock

Amidst rising Covid infections and stalled vaccinations, Germany’s “super election year” has kicked off with heavy losses for Merkel’s Christian Democrats in two key state elections. The previously unthinkable possibility of the CDU leaving the Chancellery—or even national government altogether — is no longer off the table, writes Aaron Burnett.

ANALYSIS: Germany's rising Covid cases and state elections mean Merkel's CDU could be in for a shock
CDU candidates hold a meeting in Baden-Württemberg following the announcement of the election results on Sunday. Photo: DPA

Angela Merkel’s handover of power was never supposed to be this messy. Even after her rumoured favourite, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, stepped down surprisingly as CDU Chair in early 2020, many German political observers generally expected the long-serving Chancellor to eventually hand over the country’s top job to a fellow Christian Democrat.

Sunday’s state election results not only throw big questions on those assumptions—but open the possibility that when Merkel leaves government, the CDU follows her out. Following a chancellorship built on Merkel’s brand of stability, the 2021 German national election could ironically be the country’s most unpredictable campaign in a long time.

In 2020, international media outlets sometimes held Germany up as a case study for how western countries could manage the pandemic’s public health and economic fallouts. But it’s a new year—coronavirus cases are rising once again, the country’s slow vaccination rollout isn’t picking up speed, and two CDU/CSU MdBs have resigned following evidence they personally profited from government mask purchases early in the pandemic.

Around half of German voters are now dissatisfied with the country’s overall pandemic management. Three-quarters are discontent with its vaccine rollout. The government’s approval rating has sunk to its lowest level since the pandemic began last year. Lockdown fatigue has set in, with a majority of voters in favour of at least a partial relaxing of restrictions, even with cases rising. 

Against all this, the Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg elections offered one of the best chances for the country’s political parties to gauge public moods before September’s federal vote

Both contests saw the CDU vote share drop to historic lows—while Baden-Württemberg’s Greens netted their best ever election showing at 33 percent of the vote.

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

Sitting Green Premier Winfried Kretschmann is spoilt for choice when it comes to possible coalition partners to join his state government. He could either opt to continue his current “Green-Black” coalition with the CDU—or negotiate a three-way coalition with the Social Democrats and liberal Free Democrats, whose traditional colours are red and yellow, respectively. If he pursues it, expect more German media interviews in the next few months about whether a possible “traffic light” coalition might work nationally.

“It’s clear that it’s possible to achieve majorities without the CDU,” SPD Chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz said of the results. “It’s also possible to govern Germany without the CDU and CSU.”

For now, the liberal FDP is downplaying traffic light expectations—making it clear its cooperation comes at a price. “In coalitions, we take care to ensure that we won’t have higher taxes or absurd bans,” tweeted Marco Buschmann, a high-ranking FDP Member of the Bundestag.

Speaking to public broadcaster ZDF, FDP Leader Christian Lindner laid out the party’s conditions, but left the door open. “The cards are being reshuffled this year, as Ms. Merkel is obviously not running again” he said. “But it’s the [policy] content that’s decisive.”

Recent polls show about a third of Germans would vote for Merkel’s CDU if an election were held now. That’s a figure that leads all other parties and makes it nearly impossible to form a government without it. Yet its numbers have slipped around five percent from what they were less than a month ago.

The CDU is clearly spooked. “If we don’t find our way back to our strengths, then other parties can govern without us,” former CDU leadership contender Norbert Röttgen told ARD.

“A catastrophe for our CDU,” tweeted MdB Kai Whittaker. “No more dull continuity politics. We need a new beginning.”

Yet new CDU Chair Armin Laschet has only been in the job for two months. Where else can Union politicians turn for a fresh start if not to the man they just voted in as their new leader? Based on approval numbers, many might already be tempted to turn away from Berlin and look to Munich for the answer—specifically to Bavarian Premier Markus Söder.

Laschet speaking at a press conference on Monday following the election results. Photo: DPA

In the Bundestag, the CDU bands together with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. Before each national election, the two decide on a joint candidate to put forward for Chancellor. Customarily, Laschet would be the Union candidate as CDU Chair. But the Union has opted for a CSU candidate twice before, once in 1980 and once in 2002—losing both times.

With three-quarters of Germans recently surveyed—including CDU voters—reporting that they don’t think Laschet is suitable for the Chancellery, the Union could soon decide their chances are better with Söder.

READ ALSO: Three-quarters of Germans think new CDU leader Laschet ‘not suitable choice for Chancellor’

At a score of 54 percent in early March, only Merkel’s approval rating exceeds Söder’s among Germans nationally, buoyed so far by his strict crisis leadership in Bavaria. His recent public statements on how the country should manage the pandemic suggest he’s testing his potential chances at a national level.

“Vaccination must be faster. We need faster approvals, more time between doses and an export ban for AstraZeneca,” he tweeted just before Germany temporarily suspended the vaccine’s use. “It can’t be that the US hoards all vaccines. A good partnership also means there needs to be a transatlantic approach to vaccines.”

While Söder is vocal on pandemic management issues beyond what might be considered his purview as a German state leader, he’s keeping quiet on whether he in fact intends to run. “There’s nothing new to report on the Chancellor candidate question,” Söder told reporters after Sunday’s state elections. “We’ll be continuing our discussions to decide the best possible lineup we can offer together. We are still two parties who need to come to a common decision.”

Given the CDU’s current downward trend, those discussions with the CSU might become increasingly one-sided the longer the pandemic drags on in Germany. Given Laschet’s image as a candidate representing continuity with the Merkel era, the country’s recent pandemic stumbles may leave the Union deciding that Söder is the only candidate with a profile both large and independent enough for them to keep the Chancellor’s office later this year.

Aaron Burnett is a German-Canadian journalist specialising in international security, as well as European and Canadian politics.

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CITIZENSHIP

German parliament to hold urgent debate on citizenship

Politicians will gather in the Bundestag on Thursday afternoon for an urgent session on Germany's planned changes to citizenship law.

German parliament to hold urgent debate on citizenship

According to information on the Bundestag website, the urgent discussion was scheduled on the request of the opposition CDU party, who have been fiercely critical of the planned reforms in recent days.

The debate, which is scheduled to start at 2:50pm and last an hour, will see MPs air their views on the government’s planned changes to citizenship law.

Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) is currently in the process of drafting a bill that will simplify and speed up the naturalisation process in Germany, which she said this week is “as good as done”.  

The law will end a ban on dual nationality for non-EU citizens, meaning people from places like India, the USA and the UK can naturalise as Germans without losing their current citizenship – or citizenships. 

It also foresees a dramatic reduction in the amount of time it takes to become eligible for German citizenship.

In future, people would be able to naturalise after five years of residence in the country rather than the current eight, while people who speak good German or fulfil other integration criteria could naturalise after three years rather than six.

Additionally, the Interior Ministry wants to grant automatic German citizenship to the children of foreign parents – provided their parents have been in the country at least five years – and remove language requirements for members of the guest-worker generation who want to become German. 

READ ALSO:

‘We don’t need reform’

High-profile politicians from the CDU have slammed the government’s plans to ease citizenship rules, with parliamentary leader Thorsten Frei describing the move as an attempt to “sell-off” German passports as a “junk commodity”.

“We don’t need reform,” Frei told public broadcaster ZDF. “There would no majority whatsoever in any party’s supporters for this change.”

Earlier this week, CDU leader Friedrich Merz had argued that expediting the naturalisation process would damage integration and allow people to immigrate into the benefits system more easily. 

“The CDU will not close its mind to a further modernisation of immigration law and the citizenship law of the Federal Republic of Germany,” Merz told a meeting of CDU and CSU MPs in Berlin on Tuesday.

“However, we also attach importance to the fact that the granting of citizenship takes place at the end of an integration process and not at the beginning of it.” 

The CDU and CSU have previously been vocal opponents of permitting dual nationality, arguing that holding more than one citizenship would prevent people from fully integrating into German life. 

Nevertheless, it remains unclear if the opposition will be able to block the legislation in any meaningful way.

If there aren’t any substantial changes to the core of the citizenship bill when the amendments are made, the Interior Ministry believes it won’t need to be put to a vote in the Bundesrat – the upper house where the CDU and CSU hold a majority.

Instead, the parties of the traffic-light coalition – the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) – would simply be able to vote it through in the Bundestag. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Could Germany’s conservatives block dual citizenship?

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