Merkel rejects vote of confidence over Easter lockdown reversal

Joseph Nasr
·4-min read
German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a news conference after discussing COVID-19 lockdown extension with state premiers

By Joseph Nasr

BERLIN (Reuters) -German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday rejected demands for a vote of confidence in her government over a U-turn on a circuit-breaker lockdown over Easter that compounded discontent with her handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Merkel's decision to ditch plans for an extended Easter holiday to try to break a third wave of COVID-19 agreed two days earlier during talks with governors of Germany's 16 states raised concerns that she has lost her grip on the crisis.

"No, I will not do that," said Merkel, when asked during an interview on public broadcaster ARD about calls by all three opposition parties that she submit a vote of confidence. "I asked people today to forgive me for a mistake. This was the right thing to do, I believe. I also have the support of the whole federal government and parliament."

Support for Merkel's conservatives and their centre-left Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners is falling six months before a general election in which both parties are forecast to suffer record-low results.

Germans, who in four successive elections had put their faith in her to guard their interests during the Greek debt and euro zone financial crises, are growing frustrated with her inability to set a clear timetable for lifting lockdown measures.

Merkel, who will step down before the general election in September after four terms, agreed early this week to call on citizens to stay at home for five days over Easter.

The measure would have meant all stores, including essential ones, closing for an extra day on April 1.

The plan was welcomed by doctors and hospitals who fear rising infection numbers would stretch intensive care units that have been saving lives for more than a year. It was rejected by business groups who had hoped a lockdown in place since November would translate into a reopening over Easter.

'FOOLS'

Germany's struggle to contain a second wave of the coronavirus that has now morphed into a third lies in stark contrast to its successful containment of the first outbreak early last year.

"The idea of an Easter shutdown was drafted with the best of intentions. We urgently need to stop and reverse the third wave," Merkel told the news conference.

But it was not possible to implement the measures so quickly, Merkel said, apologising for the added uncertainty that it had caused Germans.

"This mistake is mine alone," said Merkel, setting a contrite tone in public for only the second time in her 16 years as chancellor. "I ask all citizens for forgiveness."

In 2016, one year before a general election that won her a fourth term, she apologised during a conservative party conference for opening Germany's doors in 2015 to almost one million migrants, mainly Muslim asylum seekers from Syria.

But Wednesday's reversal and apology were not enough for some of her closest conservative allies.

Volker Bouffier, governor of the southern state of Hesse, told mass-selling Bild newspaper that the U-turn made the governing conservatives look like "fools."

Unlike in highly centralised France, Germany's federal system puts final say on matters of healthcare and security in the hands of state governors which has made it difficult for Merkel to forge uniform measures to contain the virus.

Germans have been largely supportive of lockdowns but a sluggish vaccination campaign, a face mask corruption scandal involving two conservative lawmakers and delays in test kit deliveries have been tearing at their patience.

"I am convinced that we will beat the virus together," said Merkel. "The path is difficult and rocky, and it is marked by successes but also by mistakes and setbacks. But the virus will slowly but surely become less scary."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung (taz) newspaper summed up the tough choices facing Merkel over the next six months with a front page showing the chancellor in a priest gown and a face mask carrying a wooden crucifix over her shoulder in an olive grove.

"Merkel Culpa," read the headline. "Easter lockdown cancelled. Chancellor shoulders the blame."

(Additional reporting by Paul Carrel and Madeline Chambers; Writing by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Alistair Bell)