Armin Laschet, who heads the CDU party and is leader of Germany’s most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia, beat back Merkel’s criticisms against states for failing to implement agreed measures to halt Covid transmissions.
“We need to trust those who work on the ground and allow more freedom and flexibility,” Laschet said in a speech outlining his party’s programme six months before a general election.
“We need more trust in people and their power to make changes, if you just let them do it,” he said.
The open spat between Laschet and Merkel came as the CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU were suffering a steep drop in support, while Germany struggles with stubbornly high infection rates and a sluggish vaccination campaign.
It also comes just before the CDU-CSU conservative alliance is due to decide who will lead it into the general election on September 26th.
Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states had agreed national measures last week including an “emergency brake” for hard-hit areas, but several states have strayed.
Merkel criticised Laschet in a rare television interview on Sunday in which she attacked Germany’s regional leaders for not following the rules.
Measures have been applied only in some districts in North Rhine-Westphalia and with sweeping exceptions.
But Laschet hit back on Monday, saying it “doesn’t help us if the federal government and states are pushing responsibility onto each other” and insisting all 16 state premiers are “taking this very seriously”.
Elected as head of the CDU in January, Laschet is in pole position to lead the alliance into the election — but his poor standing in national polls has prompted speculation that popular Bavarian premier Markus Soeder could be a better choice.
Söder on Tuesday described the dispute between Merkel and Laschet as “very strange”, saying he stood behind the chancellor and the “emergency brake”.
The conservatives have also suffered from a corruption scandal dubbed the “mask affair”, in which several CDU-CSU politicians are accused of profiting directly or indirectly from procurement contracts for protective equipment.
One recent poll had the party on just 25 percent, just two points clear of the Greens and almost eight points below their score at the last election in 2017.
Laschet on Tuesday admitted that “mistakes in pandemic management and some personal misbehaviour and selfishness in our own ranks have led to a decline in confidence” in the party.