Merkel’s Bloc Sinks Amid Calls for Health Minister’s Removal

Support for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc slumped to its lowest in a year as discontent over the government’s handling of the vaccination rollout mounts and some opposition leaders called for her to fire the health minister.

The stuttering pace of inoculation, irritation with months of lockdown restrictions and a scandal over allegations that some conservative lawmakers profited from the pandemic have eroded the CDU/CSU group’s backing, a Forsa opinion poll showed Wednesday. It followed the bloc’s poor showing in two regional votes on Sunday and suggests that it is losing steam ahead of September’s national election while the Greens gain momentum.

After climbing as high as 40% last spring, backing for the CDU/CSU dropped by four percentage points compared with the previous week to 29%, the lowest since last March, according to the poll for broadcaster RTL.

The Greens -- who on Sunday strengthened their hold on power in Baden-Wuerttemberg and had the biggest increase in support in Rhineland-Palatinate -- gained three points to 21% in second place, the highest since late November. The Social Democrats, the junior partners in Merkel’s government, remained at 16% in third.

Merkel’s Bloc Sinks Amid Calls for Health Minister’s Removal

The bad news for Merkel’s bloc comes as pressure on her to deal with Germany’s missteps in handling the pandemic mounts. Opposition leaders on Wednesday slammed Health Minister Jens Spahn for his decision to suspend use of AstraZeneca Plc’s Covid-19 vaccine amid concerns over its safety.

There was more evidence of the pandemic’s impact on Europe’s biggest economy Wednesday, as Merkel’s panel of advisers predicted weaker growth this year and warned the recovery could be jeopardized by a renewed spike in infections.

German output will expand by 3.1% in 2021, the panel predicted, trimming a forecast of 3.7% published in November. Next year, they expect growth to accelerate to 4%, underpinned by a pickup in consumer spending and strong demand for German exports, but warned that a “third wave” of infections is a significant threat.

Wolfgang Kubicki, deputy leader of the liberal FDP party, said replacing Spahn “would help to renew the population’s trust in the state” even if there are only a few months left until the election.

Spahn had been too late with the adoption of face masks and the government’s testing and vaccination strategy also failed, he told Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland, adding that the minister “is not up to the job.”

“With the uncoordinated and badly communicated suspension of AstraZeneca vaccinations, Spahn has further undermined trust in the vaccination strategy,” Katrin Goering-Eckardt, the Greens’ caucus co-chief, told the Funke media group.

A spokeswoman for the Health Ministry declined to comment.

Germany and other European states suspended the use of Astra shots amid reports of blood clots in some recipients, while the European Union’s drug regulator has repeatedly said its benefits outweigh the risks.

At the same time, the number of Covid-19 infections and deaths in Germany remains stubbornly high, prompting epidemiologists to say that the country has entered a “third wave” of the pandemic. That raises the prospect of a planned cautious lifting of restrictions being postponed and the current curbs extended into April.

Merkel’s Bloc Sinks Amid Calls for Health Minister’s Removal

Coronavirus cases in Germany rose the most in almost a week, and the country’s seven-day incidence rate per 100,000 people climbed to the highest in more than a month, data showed Wednesday.

The two state elections last Sunday gave voters a first opportunity to express their anger at the ballot box over Germany’s many problems in dealing with the pandemic. Conservative leaders vowed to step up their campaign to lead Germany’s next government after the CDU crashed to its worst-ever results in its former strongholds.

If the election were held now, the conservatives and Greens would together command a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament, the poll indicated. Other potential coalitions -- including the Greens, SPD and liberal Free Democrats, or the Greens, SPD and the far-left Die Linke -- would fall short.

Evidence of rising voter dissatisfaction will pile more pressure on Armin Laschet, the new leader of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.

Laschet is hoping to run as the conservative chancellor candidate to replace Merkel after September’s national vote, but is relatively unpopular compared to his main rival for the nomination, Bavaria Premier Markus Soeder.

If German voters were able to elect their chancellor directly, 36% would choose Soeder, the Forsa poll showed. His potential challenger from the Greens, co-leader Robert Habeck, would score 20% and the SPD’s candidate, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, 15%. If Laschet ran for the conservatives, he would only garner 21%, compare with 22% for Habeck and 20% for Scholz.

The Forsa poll of 2,501 people was conducted March 9-15 and has a margin of error of +/- 2.5 points.

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