German leaders criticise Berlin pandemic approach in Ash Wednesday rallies

Fumbled response to Covid case numbers sees politicians across spectrum vent criticism

CDU leader Armin Laschet criticised Germany’s “popular attitude of banning everything, being strict and treating citizens like small children”. Photograph: Federico Gambarini/AFP via Getty Images

CDU leader Armin Laschet criticised Germany’s “popular attitude of banning everything, being strict and treating citizens like small children”. Photograph: Federico Gambarini/AFP via Getty Images

 

Germany’s  election year is up and running as would-be successors to Angela Merkel exchanged virtual blows – and digs at the departing chancellor – in their Ash Wednesday political gathering.

Instead of shouting over crowds in muggy Bavarian beer tents, as they have for the past century, German politicians this year shifted online their roasts of rivals, due to Covid-19 restrictions.

After gliding through the first wave of the pandemic, Germany’s fumbled response to rising case numbers in the new year saw politicians line up on Wednesday to apply the ashes – to each others’ foreheads.

“There is no shortage of frustration and disappointment, two of which are the [delayed] pandemic payments and the vaccinations,” said Markus Söder, minister president of Bavaria and head of the state’s ruling Christian Social Union (CSU).

Sitting in a beer hall set, with an untouched beer and pretzels before him, Mr Söder – referring to himself and others in the third person – said German politicians “awakened false hopes that weren’t met” on vaccines. But blame for the bumpy rollout lay “naturally” with nameless European Union officials, he said, who “ordered too little, too late”.

“And let’s be honest, they were a little mean, ordering vaccines like many of us order products online,” said Mr Söder.

Like many state leaders, he faces growing pressure over the extended lockdown from voters and business leaders.

Wednesday’s appearance was his chance to boost his national appeal ahead of September’s federal election, and his ambition to lead the campaign for the CSU and its sister party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Despite his ambitions to be chancellor, Mr Söder gave his main rival a sporting chance by allowing the first-ever address at a CSU Ash Wednesday rally by a CDU leader.

Criticism

A month into his new job, CDU chairman Armin Laschet echoed the Bavarian leader by criticising Berlin’s pandemic performance. Without mentioning his arty colleague Dr Merkel by name, Mr Laschet has spent this week criticising decisions to set increasingly ambitious but, in his view, arbitrary infection goals before ending lockdown restrictions.

After months of pegging reopening to an infection rate below 50 cases per 100,000 of population over seven days, Germany, concerned about more infectious virus mutations, is now waiting until that number reaches 35.

Two months in, with another three weeks to go, frustration and impatience are growing among German business leaders, voters and the influential Bild tabloid. Mr Laschet, with an eye on all three constituencies, is attempting a risky political pivot: donning his CDU leader hat to criticise decisions he agreed to days earlier while wearing his other hat, as state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia.

On Monday he told a CDU regional gathering that he took issue with what he called Germany’s “popular attitude of banning everything, being strict and treating citizens like small children”.

Asked a day later on television if he was criticising Dr Merkel’s approach to the pandemic, Mr Laschet insisted he meant “the whole climate” in Germany.

Despite his apparent row-back, Bild praised the CDU leader on Wednesday for “plucking up the courage to say what many think”.