Germany’s pandemic restrictions row exposes political duel

Armin Laschet urges end to Merkel ‘lockdown logic’ as Markus Söder twists knife

With September’s federal election looming – and the end of the Merkel era in sight – Germany’s bumpy pandemic response has morphed into a bare-knuckle battle for power between Berlin and 16 powerful state leaders.

After an exhausting year of fortnightly meetings and political solo runs, chancellor Angela Merkel has threatened to overrule the Länder and impose uniform restrictions – including a full lockdown for a short period – to break a third infection wave.

Her threat, made on national television on Sunday, has met with stiff resistance in 16 state capitals. Similar to EU member states who resent any efforts by Brussels to muscle in on their competences, state leaders from Hamburg to Stuttgart do not take kindly to Berlin’s interference on health, education and other key areas in pandemic management.

Merkel’s intervention came after key officials in her administration sounded the alarm that Germany’s third wave could be the worst so far – and that another year of small-state bickering could have deadly consequences.


Thus Merkel’s high-risk move: the last, risky roll of the dice by a leader liberated by never having to face voters again at the ballot box. Yet she still has a 16-year legacy on the line.

Four times since 2005, she has sworn an oath as chancellor to defend the wellbeing of the German people, to “promote their welfare [and] protect them from harm”.

Date with destiny

In the last days, her own legal experts – and those in the Bundestag – have issued legal opinions confirming that her federal government has the power to force the states into a single, coherent lockdown path. Her predecessor Gerhard Schröder fell on his sword by forcing through – against the will of many in his own Social Democratic Party (SPD) – economic and welfare reforms he felt were essential for Germany’s future.

By demanding an Irish-style lockdown above the heads of the Länder, Merkel may soon face her date with destiny. But choosing this nuclear option could decide the outcome of September’s federal election.

Since her weekend threat, the resistance against what is viewed by the states as a power grab is being led by the chairman of Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Armin Laschet.

The 60 year old is also minister president in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. Though Germany has never faced any lockdown as restrictive as Ireland or elsewhere, he is demanding an end to Merkel’s “lockdown logic”.

Along with Berlin, Saarland and other states, Laschet prefers a hybrid regime that makes regular, free testing a condition of visits to shops, galleries and other facilities. This more flexible approach throws a lifeline to businesses, Laschet argues, and encourages more people to get tested – in the hope of catching asymptomatic Covid-19 cases.

Digital backwardness

Two months ago, Laschet was elected CDU chairman as a continuity candidate but on Tuesday, and in open conflict with Merkel, he cut his ties.

“We can’t just carry on as before, mistakes that are obvious have to be tackled,” he said, a nod to Germany’s digital backwardness, which has been exposed in the pandemic. Germany had “got too comfortable in the last years” and, without mentioning Merkel by name, he attacked the idea of a centralised German pandemic response.

“You can’t dictate centrally, from above, who is to be vaccinated where, when and how,” he told supporters. “We have to trust people on the ground.”

In this battle, Laschet knows time is not on his side and that his real rival is not in Berlin but in Munich.

In the coming days, the CDU leader has to agree with his Bavarian ally Markus Söder, head of the ruling Christian Social Union (CSU), which of them will head the CDU/CSU campaign and, theoretically, be Germany’s next chancellor.

Unusually for a Bavarian leader, Söder has come out in favour of handing more power to Berlin, elegantly twisting the knife on Laschet in the closing stage of their political duel.

“It doesn’t look good when the federal government and the states are fighting,” said Söder on Tuesday, in a show of mock concern. “And I find it strange that, half a year before the federal election, the CDU leader and the CDU chancellor are fighting.”