Merkel focuses on pandemic legacy as her party considers whether to break with her

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Justin Huggler
·5 min read
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(FILES) In this file photo taken on December 16, 2020 German Chancellor Angela Merkel puts her face protection mask on after a session of the Bundestag (lower house of parliament) in Berlin, amid the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic. - Chancellor Angela Merkel on January 16, 2021 said significantly tougher measures were needed to slow Germany's coronavirus infections, party sources told AFP. Speaking at a meeting with top brass from her centre-right CDU party, Merkel said "the virus can only be stopped with significant additional efforts", participants told AFP, adding that the chancellor wanted to hold fresh crisis talks with regional leaders next week. (Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP) (Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images) - ODD ANDERSEN/AFP
(FILES) In this file photo taken on December 16, 2020 German Chancellor Angela Merkel puts her face protection mask on after a session of the Bundestag (lower house of parliament) in Berlin, amid the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic. - Chancellor Angela Merkel on January 16, 2021 said significantly tougher measures were needed to slow Germany's coronavirus infections, party sources told AFP. Speaking at a meeting with top brass from her centre-right CDU party, Merkel said "the virus can only be stopped with significant additional efforts", participants told AFP, adding that the chancellor wanted to hold fresh crisis talks with regional leaders next week. (Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP) (Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images) - ODD ANDERSEN/AFP

When Angela Merkel's party meets to elect a new leader on Saturday, the chances are her attention will be elsewhere.

As her Christian Democrat party (CDU) struggles with the question of how to replace her, the veteran chancellor is focusing her final months in power on battling the coronavirus pandemic.

While the three candidates to succeed her were making the final polishes to their speeches on Friday, Mrs Merkel, who will stand down as chancellor in September, was summoning regional leaders to urgent talks on tightening the German lockdown next week.

“Anyone who thinks they can win a general election by breaking with Angela Merkel is out of their mind,” Markus Söder, the Bavarian regional leader, said. “She is one of the great chancellors, and belongs alongside Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl.”

Mr Söder is not a disinterested commentator. German party leaders are not automatically candidates for chancellor, and he has hopes of being parachuted in as the CDU’s candidate. But it was still a remarkable tribute from a man who was until recently one of Mrs Merkel’s sternest critics.

Yet the CDU may be about to break with her all the same. One of the candidates to succeed her, Friedrich Merz, is an old rival whose entire political career has been consumed by his personal antipathy towards Mrs Merkel — so much so he quit politics altogether when he lost control of the party to her in 2002, and didn’t return until she announced her retirement in 2018.

Friedrich Merz wants to take the CDU back to its conservative roots - Markus Schreiber/AP
Friedrich Merz wants to take the CDU back to its conservative roots - Markus Schreiber/AP

Mr Merz makes no secret of the fact he wants to tear up the centrist approach Mrs Merkel forged in her own image and take the CDU back to what he considers its conservative roots. In his way stand Armin Laschet, a centrist seen as the Merkellian continuity candidate, and Norbert Röttgen, a foreign policy expert from the left of the party.

Mrs Merkel’s shadow hangs over all of them. She defeated Mr Merz, sacked Mr Röttgen, and appeared to endorse Mr Laschet until she clashed with him over coronavirus policy.

Just over a year ago, it seemed Mrs Merkel was limping towards the finish line of her chancellorship, fatally weakened by her refugee policy of 2015. But the pandemic gave her new energy, and the chance to forge a legacy to compare with that of Adenauer, who presided over West Germany’s rise from the ashes of the Second World War, and Kohl, who presided over German reunification.

For a time last year, after Germany weathered the first wave of the virus better than almost anywhere else, it seemed she had succeeded. The international press talked of a “German exception”.

Armin Laschet is the continuity candidate - TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP
Armin Laschet is the continuity candidate - TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP

But now Mrs Merkel is fighting for her legacy. More than two months of lockdown have not been able to bring the infection rate down, and a vaccine debacle which has left Germany, the country where the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine was developed, facing shortages, threatens to leave it far behind the UK.

Mrs Merkel is said to be deeply concerned by the new virus mutations, in particular the B117 mutation which was first detected in Britain. She is said to be convinced this mutation was behind the recent dramatic rise in infections in Ireland, despite the findings of the World Health Organisation (WHO) that it wasn’t.

“We have to get this British virus under control,” she was quoted as saying by Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung.

It’s not the first time the pandemic has cast her in the role of Cassandra. She was already pushing for more restrictions when many still believed Germany might avoid the second wave last autumn. The fact she was right about a second wave has given her credit with the German public, and she continues to enjoy approval ratings that would be the envy of most world leaders, at around 70 per cent.

Norbert Roettgen is considered an outsider -  TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP
Norbert Roettgen is considered an outsider - TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP

But when she meets with regional leaders on Tuesday, her options will be limited. Her office ruled out suggestions she would call for public transport to be shut down across Germany, or make it compulsory for people to work from home. Unless she is to follow France and Spain in preventing people from leaving their homes — a move that would be deeply unpopular in fresh air-obssessed Germany — there is little more she can do.

Many in Berlin suspect that behind her current urgency lies the vaccine debacle. Germany entrusted its orders to the European Commission, which got stuck in protracted negotiations and failed to order enough. Mrs Merkel admitted this week that it may not be possible to make up the shortfall until July. That has left Germany scrabbling to contain the virus in the meantime.

Jens Spahn, the health minister, has borne the brunt of public anger over the vaccine fiasco, but according to German press reports it was Mrs Merkel who overruled him and insisted ordering be left to Brussels. That decision may yet prove to have a more lasting effect on her legacy than the choice of leader her party makes.