The Irish Times view on German politics: life after Merkel

A year into the pandemic, Germany’s strong performance in the first wave is a memory

Chancellor Angela Merkel still has six months until her fourth and final term ends in Berlin, but the post-Merkel era began on Sunday night. In two regional polls in southwest Germany, her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) scored historic low results in what were once conservative party strongholds. Senior CDU figures concede their disastrous share of the vote was a "wake-up" call.

A year into the pandemic, Germany’s strong performance in the first wave is a memory. It seems every mistake that can be made – on masks and rapid test procurement, emergency business payments and vaccinations – has been made. A refusal to accept responsibility means the public has decided to blame Berlin’s ruling CDU and its federal ministers for health and economics. Compounding their fury: in the rush to buy protective face masks last year, a handful of centre-right parliamentarians took kick backs from manufacturers for securing public contracts.

Like CDU officials, the public have finally woken up to the fact that Angela Merkel is packing her bags – and that her party has no plan for what comes next. Armin Laschet, party leader for the past two months, has yet to even agree with the CDU's Bavarian allies who will lead their centre-right campaign. Laschet promises continuity with Merkel's centrist, pragmatic politics but cannot replicate her unique tactical skill: driving by sight, addressing complex problems pragmatically so voters don't have to.

The pandemic has exposed brutally Germany’s main structural failing: a decentralised bureaucracy that, while thorough, cannot move at the pace a pandemic requires. The good news is that Sunday’s wake-up call has sparked debate about digital and ecological transformation that are realistic and socially just. The bad news: even after the September 26th federal poll, exploratory and coalition talks are likely to drag on until Christmas. With its largest member distracted, much of the urgent business of recalibrating the EU for the post-Brexit, post-pandemic era may have to wait until next year.