Christian Democrats campaigning in southern Germany ahead of a critical election next Sunday were already languishing in the polls. The “mask affair” has done nothing to improve their chances.
Voters have been digesting the news that two MPs from Angela Merkel’s centre-right bloc earned substantial commissions on deals to procure urgently needed masks during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
“This has the potential to inflict long-lasting harm on the CDU,” Olav Gutting, a Christian Democrat MP, told the Financial Times. It has also coincided with a “striking” number of other scandals. “They’re really piling up,” he said.
Both the MPs involved have been forced to resign, after coming under massive pressure from party bosses. Nikolas Löbel, of the CDU, announced on Monday he was quitting the Bundestag with immediate effect. Just hours later Georg Nüßlein of the CDU’s Bavarian sister organisation, the CSU, announced he was leaving the party, though he will stay in parliament until September’s election.
For the CDU the timing could not be worse. Next Sunday, elections will be held in both Baden-Württemberg, where the Greens have been leading in the polls, and the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, where the left-leaning Social Democrats appear to be heading for victory. The mask affair has badly damaged the CDU’s chances of turning the tide.
“We are absolutely livid that this is happening now,” said one CDU official in Baden-Württemberg. “Voters say those MPs earn so much — why do they feel the need to do dodgy deals on the side as well?”
For Jürgen Falter, a political scientist at Mainz University, the mask scandal simply adds “insult to injury”. “People were already blaming the CDU for the slow start to the vaccination campaign, and for broken promises on mass testing, and now this,” he said. “Trust in the party is dwindling, and this will only speed up that process.”
The elections on Sunday come at a delicate time for Armin Laschet, the new leader of the CDU. A poor performance by the Christian Democrats could undermine his authority and weaken his bid to run as the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate for chancellor in September’s elections.
Senior CDU figures have quickly switched into damage-limitation mode. Ralph Brinkhaus, leader of the parliamentary party, said he would investigate whether any other MPs had been paid for deals involving pandemic protective equipment. “Whoever has attempted to profit financially from the procurement of PPE in this emergency has no place in our ranks,” he wrote to MPs.
Meanwhile, opposition parties have moved swiftly to take advantage of the mask affair. Annalena Baerbock, co-leader of the Greens, said it showed the CDU/CSU had a “structural and systemic problem” with “sleaze”.
Marco Buschmann, chief whip for the opposition Free Democrats, said Merkel’s party risked sharing the fate of the Italian Christian Democrats, which was notoriously “riddled with corrupt networks”. “And when they became known, voters sent them into the wilderness and the party vanished.”
Even before the mask affair broke, the CDU was in trouble. It holds two ministries — health and economy — that have come to epitomise the government’s failings during the coronavirus pandemic. Jens Spahn, health minister, has been blamed for the slow pace of inoculations and the botched rollout of rapid coronavirus tests: his colleague, economy minister Peter Altmaier, has come under attack over delays in the distribution of financial aid to companies affected by the three-month shutdown.
But the CDU also has another big problem — Merkel herself. For months the veteran chancellor has been shaping Germany’s national coronavirus policy, together with the governors of the country’s 16 states. But in recent weeks she has found it harder and harder to get her way. Experts say her influence will continue to diminish in the run-up to September’s Bundestag election, after which she has pledged to retire from politics. “She is a lame duck who has clearly lost authority,” said Falter.
Meanwhile, Löbel and Nüßlein, who is being investigated for suspected corruption in the masks case by prosecutors in Munich, are not the only Christian Democrat MPs in the eye of a storm. Authorities are investigating CDU Bundestag member Axel Fischer for suspected corruption, and last week lifted his parliamentary immunity.
Prosecutors claim he and other former and current members of the Bundestag received money from Azerbaijan in exchange for voting for pro-Azeri motions and resolutions. Fischer rejected the allegations as “groundless”.
CDU MP Philipp Amthor has also come under scrutiny over his lobbying work for US tech company Augustus Intelligence. After initially claiming he received no payment for his services, he later admitted to receiving thousands of stock options from the company.
The resulting furore prompted Amthor to withdraw from the limelight. However, last weekend he re-entered the front rank of politics when he was elected as the CDU’s leading candidate from the northern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in September’s Bundestag election. Opposition parties were aghast.
For Olav Gutting, the mask affair evokes painful memories of the worst crisis in the CDU’s history, when Helmut Kohl admitted accepting illegal party donations while he was chancellor in the 1990s.
“The donations scandal nearly destroyed the CDU,” said Gutting. “And this one could have the same calibre if every week we get a new story about masks.”