BERLIN—Impatience at a four-month lockdown and a glacial Covid-19 vaccine rollout have begun to eat away at popular support for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her conservatives months before a general election.
The party suffered a blow on Sunday, recording one of its worst-ever defeats at regional elections in two populous states in Germany’s affluent south, according to preliminary results.
In Baden-Württemberg, one of Germany’s industrial powerhouses and an erstwhile conservative bastion, Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrat Union won only 23.9% of the vote, down from 28% in 2016, according to preliminary results calculated by the ARD broadcaster. In the neighboring Rhineland Palatinate, the party recorded 26.5%, down from 31.8% at the last election. The Green Party took 31.9% of the vote in Baden-Württemberg, while the Social Democrats took 34.2% in Rhineland Palatinate.
The ballots were seen as bellwether contests ahead of the federal election in September, which will mark the end of Ms. Merkel’s 16-year-reign as chancellor. They come as a warning to her aspiring successor, CDU Chairman Armin Laschet.
Public frustration with Ms. Merkel’s conservative-led government has been growing since last year. A lockdown has been in place in Germany since November without any prospect of a swift return to normalcy.
Adding to the uncertainty, infection numbers have begun rising again in recent days after falling steadily since early January, and Germany’s vaccination campaign has been one of the slowest in Europe, with only 7% of the population having received at least one vaccine dose in nearly three months.
This is a sharp contrast to the first wave of the pandemic, which Germany emerged from with a fraction of the deaths suffered by the U.S. and the rest of Europe and a largely intact economy.
The German Economic Institute, a Cologne-based think tank funded by German businesses, said in a report on Sunday that the lockdowns have cost the country’s economy €250 billion, or $299 billion.
The first Western-authorized Covid-19 vaccine was invented in Germany by BioNTech SE, which then partnered with Pfizer Inc. to manufacture and market the shot. Yet Germany has only vaccinated over six million people with at least one shot due to manufacturing hiccups, logistical bottlenecks, and a slow procurement process. Vaccinations in the U.S. and the U.K., using largely the same shot, have progressed much faster.
Some three million vaccines are languishing in storage across Germany, in part because of the country’s complex and rigid prioritization process for recipients and its slow, centralized distribution process.
A full year after the start of the outbreak, Germany’s government has yet to digitize healthcare data gathering, with regional authorities still struggling to determine who is entitled to receive the shot. In some cases, invitations for vaccination have been sent to dead people.
The pressure on Ms. Merkel’s bloc was compounded by a scandal that engulfed its parliamentary group, forcing three lawmakers to resign amid allegations of corruption and profiteering. Two members of the lower house of parliament quit after allegations that they had received large commissions for acting as intermediaries in the sale of face masks and other protective equipment to the government.
“These isolated cases are affecting us all, they make us angry and put us to shame,“ CDU Secretary-General Paul Ziemiak said.
Following the scandal, which has dominated the news in the run-up to the state elections, all conservative lawmakers were asked to sign a pledge that they aren’t, and haven’t been, profiting from businesses related to pandemic management.
Mr. Laschet, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia who was elected CDU leader in January, is vying to become chancellor candidate ahead of the September election.
The loss of the first two elections since he became party chair, the corruption scandal and growing anger with the pandemic management are now threatening to derail his bid to become Ms. Merkel’s successor.
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