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Fall from Grace Merkel's Conservatives Mired in Scandal and Incompetence

Shameless deals for medical equipment, dubious foreign contacts and corona crisis mismanagement: Angela Merkel's conservatives are in bad shape as the election campaign looms. How did they lose their way?

Armin Laschet, the newly anointed head of Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has been a politician for two-and-a-half decades. He knows how difficult it can be, and how quickly things can change. But even he might be getting a bit dizzy these days.

Not even two months have passed since he was elected head of the country's largest, most powerful political party, essentially transforming him into the chancellor-in-waiting and designated successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel. What could possibly go wrong? After all, the coronavirus vaccines had arrived, signaling a path out of the pandemic. It looked like it would be a good year for him and the CDU.

Now, though, nine weeks later, the 60-year-old Laschet is the head of a party that has slumped into its deepest crisis in decades and is struggling in the polls. Even as the country is set to vote in the general election this fall, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), still haven't agreed on who their candidate for chancellor will be. The Union, as the pairing of the two parties is known, seems unsure of itself on the eve of the campaign. Suddenly, it is looking as though it could be a difficult, even a bad year for the two parties. And for Laschet.

Indeed, the party received a premonition of what could be on the horizon in the state votes in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. The CDU came in second in both states, and also lost ground relative to elections four years ago. The press coverage on Monday has been a disaster for the party.

The Union has been in turmoil ever since it became known that to conservative lawmakers are thought to have enriched themselves with business deals involving medical protective equipment – at a time when workers across the country were fearful of losing their jobs, when the self-employed were facing ruin and when doctors and nurses were risking their health. Political representatives benefitting from a crisis that has gripped the entire country is not a good look.

DER SPIEGEL 10/2021

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 11/2021 (March 13, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

The relationship of the Union parties to money has always been rather distinctive and has led to scandals in the past. That, though, had largely faded from memory over the last two decades, with the CDU under the leadership of the most unpretentious woman imaginable – a woman for whom a hearty German potato soup has always been the epitome of temptation. A woman who only became head of the party because she never had anything to do with slush funds.

Yet now, as Merkel's tenure comes to an end, and with just six months to go until the election, Germany is once again facing pressing questions about the governing party's approach to money.

Role Models?

The question as to who made money with mask deals isn't the only one. There are additional concerns about the corruptibility of politicians, about well-paid side jobs and about dubious ties between some Christian Democrats and the regime in Azerbaijan. Last Thursday, those ties led to the most recent resignation of a CDU lawmaker from parliament: Mark Hauptmann of Thuringia, who was head of the influential caucus of young Union parliamentarians.

While in office, Mark Hauptmann enjoyed excellent contacts with Azerbaijan.

While in office, Mark Hauptmann enjoyed excellent contacts with Azerbaijan.

Foto: Hans Christian Plambeck / laif

Ultimately, though, the current troubles of the CDU and CSU have to do with expectations that politicians behave as role models – and their failure to do so. A failure exhibited, for example, by German Health Minister Jens Spahn, who urged the German populace in an October television appearance to avoid social gatherings due to the climbing number of coronavirus infections – only to meet with business leaders for a fund-raising dinner that very evening. And by Klaus-Peter Willsch, a CDU parliamentarian from the state of Hesse, who, as seen in a video, celebrated his 60th birthday with no mask and no apparent regard for social distancing rules – at a time when children's birthday parties were banned across his state.

Germans are tired and the acceptance of coronavirus rules is crumbling. And then it comes out that the rules apparently don't apply to everybody. The timing is dangerous.

A majority of the population, though, might be inclined to overlook such missteps if things were actually working. If people had the feeling that the government was doing its job protecting the population from the virus and ably leading the country through the pandemic. But that is not the case.

Instead, Germany is behind on vaccinations, even as the United States and Britain have forged ahead. There is a shortage of rapid tests that could at least enable a modicum of freedom for a few hours. Germany is not being well led in this pandemic. And the responsibility for this lies primarily with the Union.

The CDU holds the Chancellery and leads the government, but it has apparently lost the abilities that have made it Germany's strongest party for decades. The conservatives were consistently supported less for their party platform and more for the fact that they were good at governing – and were more or less upstanding. That era, though, seems to be over.

Suddenly, the CDU and CSU have produced their largest scandal since the party donation disgrace in 1999. Georg Nüsslein, 51, who was the CSU's pointman in parliament on health policy, stands accused of receiving a 660,000-euro fee for having arranged a multi-million euro deal for the acquisition of medical protective equipment. The alleged bribe money is thought to have ended up in a Caribbean tax haven via a Liechtenstein account belonging to an offshore company. Nüsslein denies the accusations.

Meanwhile, Nikolas Löbel, 34, until recently a CDU lawmaker from Mannheim, offered to obtain masks from a company in Baden-Württemberg for companies working in the health-care sector – and received a fee of 250,000 euros for his services.

Following extreme pressure from the Union, both Nüsslein and Löbel resigned from parliament and cancelled their party memberships. It remains to be seen whether they will face legal consequences. Nor is it clear what will happen with the money they were allegedly paid. Their political careers, though, appear to be finished.

Suddenly, a sense of uneasiness has spread throughout the Union, particularly since the resignation of Hauptmann, who claimed he did so to protect his family. Are there more cases out there of conservative sleaze? Are there others who finagled their way into shady payments for masks or other deals?

"Untrustworthy"

The trail to Hauptmann's dubious contacts leads to a neighborhood in Frankfurt located far away from the glass-and-steel skyscrapers of the financial district. In a residential building in the Rödelheim neighborhood are the offices of TY-Capital-Ug, a company that allegedly does business all over the world.

At the entrance hangs a mailbox, on which the company name is scrawled in red ink next to a Vietnamese woman's name. Nobody opens the door even after the buzzer is rung four times. A website for the company was registered in late April 2020, right at the peak of the first coronavirus wave. The company, the website claims, can "deliver premium-quality medical masks at competitive prices."

A specific Google search is necessary to find the company online. Yet the CDU parliamentarian Hauptmann was well aware of it when chaos surrounding the acquisition of masks erupted in his home state of Thuringia. In early April 2020, according to minutes taken by a district administrator's office in Thuringia, Hauptmann called the district administrator on the phone and offered her masks from Vietnam, with payment required in advance. The office declined. The minutes note that the offer was "untrustworthy."

Hauptmann, though, found success in the neighboring district, where he also touted the offerings of the company TY-Capital-Ug. The district administrator there bought 41,500 masks for 58,800 euros. The prices were rather high: 1.17 euros per surgical mask and 8.09 euros per FFP2 mask. The district administrator's office insists the prices were "competitive." In fact, though, they were far higher than what the Health Ministry in Berlin was paying suppliers at the time.

Another district also took advantage of the offer from Hauptmann, buying 41,000 masks for almost 55,000 euros, the same prices paid in the first district. Hauptmann also offered masks to the state of Thuringia, but the deal never materialized.

In an email, the company insisted that Hauptmann had merely established contact with the public officials in a "time of need," and that he wasn't paid a fee for his services. Hauptmann says he helped establish contact with the company "at the request of local intermediaries" and that he received no money for his services. He declined to say how he knew of the company.

Georg Nüsslein is thought to have cashed in a 660,000 euro fee through his consulting company.

Georg Nüsslein is thought to have cashed in a 660,000 euro fee through his consulting company.

Foto: Christoph Hardt / Future Image / imago images

Was he just an altruistic helper in a time of need? After DER SPIEGEL reported on the initial allegations against Hauptmann on Wednesday evening, the pressure apparently became too great on the politician. On Thursday, he said he was resigning from his seat in parliament.

It was the third such incident in the Union within just a few days. Are there more to come?

Looking for Fees

Within the German Health Ministry, names are circulating of politicians who provided assistance to producers and sellers of medical protection equipment during the pandemic. They didn't all follow the same procedures.

There were those parliamentarians who rather harmlessly drew attention early on in the pandemic to companies in their own electoral districts. There were those who – abrasively or not – demanded to know in summer why the purchase price hadn't yet been transferred to the suppliers in question. And then, there were apparently a few who got involved because of the fees they could earn.

Health Minister Jens Spahn has promised "complete transparency" – but can his ministry actually publish all the names? It is the focus of an ongoing debate. Many lawmakers are afraid of being placed under a blanket of suspicion.

Top members of the Union group in parliament have requested that conservative lawmakers issue a statement. Group leader Ralph Brinkhaus and CSU parliamentary leader Alexander Dobrindt are demanding that every representative declare whether he or she received financial benefits from business deals conducted during the pandemic. Those who refuse to do so are invited in for a discussion. Such a thing is unprecedented in the fraction – and serves to show just how deep is the fear and how widespread the distrust has become within the Union.

One of those who became involved in the mask business out of honorable motives to help companies in her electoral district is the CSU lawmaker Andrea Lindholz. A company from her region turned to her after it had procured masks for the Health Ministry only to be told that the ministry didn't need them all. "I tried to figure out what had gone wrong and to be an intermediary. Such things are part of the day-to-day work for members of parliament," Lindholz says. "But I would never come up with the idea of holding out my hand after performing such a service. Those who take advantage of their positions for profit in such a crisis destroy trust in politics."

Lindholz is furious at the behavior of Nüsslein and Löbel. "It's a catastrophe for each and every one of us," she says.

The loss of trust is deep and reaches all the way to the grassroots of the party. "It's an absolute farce," says Andreas Rüther, a member of the CDU in Bielefeld. Rüther, 57, is the deputy mayor and has been a member of the party for almost 40 years and district chair since 2013. He now finds himself forced to constantly talk about the mask deals.

"You get questions from your friends, from your neighbors – and sometimes you get lumped together in a broad generalization: 'You're all good for nothing anyway,'" he says. "And all because a few people much higher up the ladder behave in a way that is damaging to the party."

The situation is similar in the city of Wuppertal. "Our members are stunned and angry," says CDU district chair Rolf Köster. He says he is even asked about the mask scandal during his morning walks with his golden retriever. Köster says his neighbors and acquaintances are "completely disgusted."

But what exactly is the issue here? Is it really just a couple of bad apples? Or does the Union have a structural problem?

Even in places where everything is aboveboard, CDU and CSU parliamentarians demonstrate a rather particular approach to money. On average, Union lawmakers earned at least 58,000 euros between the end of 2017 and summer 2020 from side jobs – in addition to their healthy salaries as parliamentarians.

A Lot of Side Gigs

By comparison, among SPD lawmakers, the average was around 15,500 euros per capita and in the Green Party, just 1,800. Only representatives from the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) earned more on average from side jobs.

The numbers should be approached with some caution, however. Fees from speaking engagements are included as are profits from companies owned by the parliamentarians. Still, the numbers produced by some in the Union are rather astonishing.

New CDU leader Armin Laschet has a difficult year ahead of him.

New CDU leader Armin Laschet has a difficult year ahead of him.

Foto: Julia Sellmann / Die ZEIT / laif

At the top of the list is a CSU parliamentarian from Nuremberg named Sebastian Brehm – who during the current legislative period has earned 3.1 million euros as a tax consultant in addition to his salary as a representative. An additional top earner is CDU lawmaker Hans-Georg von der Marwitz, who owns an organic farm in the state of Brandenburg. His gross revenues since the beginning of the legislative period amount to almost 2.2 million euros. And then there is Albert Stegemann from Lower Saxony. As head of the family business, which breeds and sells milk cows, his additional earnings amount to 1.4 million euros.

Still, such company earnings, which representatives are legally required to disclose, don't tell the whole story because of the expenses that aren't reflected in the raw numbers. As such, it is almost impossible to compare them to compensation earned for serving on a supervisory board, for example, or speaking fees.

But the sheer number of such side jobs some CDU lawmakers have is enough to raise eyebrows. Joachim Pfeiffer, for example, has listed 26 side jobs and functions for the current legislative period. His party colleague Röring has 24 and CDU-man Stefan Kaufmann has 21. Most of them are honorary positions.

Side jobs are not forbidden, but they have been the focus of fierce debate in recent years. After all, being a parliamentarian is actually a fulltime job. How much time can really be leftover for other work? Conservatives tend to have a different view: They say that they are loath to become dependent on holding public office.

For historian Frank Bösch, of the Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam, it's not surprising that conservative parliamentarians are in the center of the current mask scandal. "Because of the specific career structures of CDU/CSU representatives, the danger of private enrichment has grown," says Bösch, who has authored two definitive works on the history of the CDU.

Until 1965, he says, "40 percent of those in the Union were self-employed and, in the ensuing decades, it was a third, with the share slowly shrinking," Bösch says. Among politicians on the left side of the spectrum, though, there has "historically been a different moral approach to the private-sector earnings of politicians" – and greater efforts at transparency. Bösch notes that members of the federal parliament in Germany have been required to disclose earnings from companies and associations since 1972. The chancellor who pushed the law through was Willy Brandt, a Social Democrat.

For years, though, the rules governing the reporting of side jobs have been the focus of significant criticism. They primarily have two weaknesses: Members of parliament are not required to disclose the names of their financial backers in many instances. And the amount must only be roughly noted, from level one (over 1,000 euros) to level 10 (over 250,000 euros).

Tightening Up the Rules

The rather lenient rules offer plenty of loopholes. Those who book certain earnings through a company acting as an intermediary only have to report the name of the company, while the person with whom the deal was made, and the size of the deal, can both remain undisclosed. Nikolas Löbel, the CDU lawmaker who received a quarter million euros for facilitating a deal for masks, had the fee paid to his limited company. The deal would likely never have become public knowledge had Löbel not mailed around his fee demands.

Thus far, every effort to tighten up the rules has been the focus of furious opposition – frequently from Union representatives. In 2006, Friedrich Merz, who recently lost the election to become the CDU party chair, even filed a legal challenge to changes passed by the SPD-Green coalition government, pursuing the case to Germany's highest court, where he lost.

Now, Union leaders Brinkhaus and Dobrindt want to pave the way for increased transparency. They have their sights set on eliminating paid work in areas that are directly linked to issues representatives work on in parliament.

Hartmut Bäumer, the head of Transparency International in Germany, views such a reform as little more than window dressing. Had such a rule been in place, Bäumer says, it would have had little effect on Löbel's mask deal. After all, Löbel isn't typically involved in health-care issues. "If the Union is serious about transparency and openness, then every lobbying activity that is directly financially advantageous to a representative must be prohibited in the future," Bäumer says.

Carsten Schneider, a senior member of the SPD group in the German parliament, demands "comprehensive and binding reform to criminal law," with clear penalties attached. The Green Party would like to see paid lobby work banned entirely. Some in the CDU would also like to see far-reaching reform. "We should use these events as a motivation to broadly examine our relationship to business," says Elisabeth Motschmann of the CDU. She is in favor of clear rules "independent of the pandemic." Norbert Röttgen, another senior member of the CDU, says: "We need harsh, dissuasive consequences. Those who derive financial benefit from their seats should no longer be in the parliament or in the CDU."

Lindholz, the CSU member, demands that politicians no longer be allowed to engage in consulting on the side. "Working as a representative and working as a consulting firm should be mutually exclusive," she says. "Those interested in consulting should withdraw from active politics."

But even that would hardly account for the fateful urge for money currently exhibited by some young lawmakers in the Union – by Löbel and Hauptmann, for example. Other members of the Young Group, an assembly of younger lawmakers within the Union fraction in parliament, have taken a striking number of expensive trips in the last several years, paid for by autocratic regimes.

Three young conservatives flew business class to Oman in December 2018, for example, with the costs picked up by the Sultanate. CDU lawmaker Christoph Bernstiel, meanwhile, flew to Saudi Arabia in 2019, with the 6,556 tab for the trip covered by Riyadh. And then there is Philipp Amthor, who is widely seen as an up-and-coming star in the party. He lobbied on behalf of the U.S. firm Augustus Intelligence using parliament stationary and was named a director of the company in return, in addition to receiving stock options. No long-term damage was done, however: Just recently, the CDU in his home state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania made him its lead candidate for the general election later this year.

Courting a Dictator

But even as the focus is currently on younger parliamentarians from the Union, some of the older ones have often been no better. Karin Strenz, for example.

She maintains excellent ties to the regime of Azerbaijan despot Ilham Aliyev – a relationship in which public prosecutors have long taken an interest. In January 2020, prosecutors searched Strenz's offices in the Bundestag, with a similar raid on Axel Fischer, another CDU parliamentarian, following last week. Both are under investigation for corruption. Strenz rejects the accusations and Fischer calls them "untenable."

The dictator Aliyev follows the same strategy of other despots from the Caucasus: At home, they shut down any form of opposition while posing as committed democrats abroad. In their search for recognition, they tend to spend a significant amount of money on lobbying in the West.

Philipp Amthor conduction lobbying on behalf of a U.S. company and received stock options for his troubles.

Philipp Amthor conduction lobbying on behalf of a U.S. company and received stock options for his troubles.

Foto: Janine Schmitz / Photothek / Getty Images

And again, it is primarily Union politicians who play the role of willing assistants to Azerbaijan. In September 2011, former Economics Minister Michael Glos of the CSU and the former CDU parliamentarian for Berlin Karl-Georg Wellmann accepted an invitation to an independence festival in Baku. The trip was paid for by the Azerbaijan government, including business-class air travel, luxury hotel rooms and a gala dinner.

Glos is a member of the German-Azerbaijani Forum, which is at the center of the lobbying work and was led for many years by Otto Hauser, who was briefly government spokesman under Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1998. Hauser now bears the title "Honorary Consul of Azerbaijan."

Representative Eberhard Gienger is also on the Azerbaijan team. The former world champion gymnast is now focusing on performing verbal tricks on behalf of Azerbaijan. In an interview published on a government-allied website, he promoted the holding of "major sporting events in Azerbaijan" to "strengthen civil society."

Hauptmann, the parliamentarian from Thuringia who was so deeply active in helping sell the expensive coronavirus masks, is also involved in the pro-Azerbaijan activities.

Hauptmann used to regularly publish a small newspaper for his electoral district called the Südthüringen Kurier, the primary mission of which was to praise his work and that of the CDU in the region. But in April 2018, an item appeared in the publication that had nothing to do with the state of Thuringia. It was an advertisement – in English – for a "shopping festival" in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. The next such shopping festival followed six months later, as did the next ad, purchased by the Azerbaijan Embassy in Berlin. In total, Azerbaijan spent 16,000 euros for such advertisements in Thuringia. Why? For what?

Hauptmann says the money didn't go to him, but to the marketing agency responsible for the ads, with which he has no legal involvement, he adds. He insists he isn't corrupt. Neither did he receive the money, nor did he do anything to justify its payment. But there are inconsistencies.

Donation Troubles

In March 2018, the daughter of a family that owns a juice company in Azerbaijan praised the company's "premium quality pomegranate juice" in Hauptmann's newspaper. Then, in November 2018, Hauptmann organized the first German-Azerbaijani Economic Dialogue together with the embassy in Berlin. The juice company was one of the sponsors. Hauptmann says that he didn't receive any money on that occasion either. Financing, he says, went through an event management company that frequently works with the Union.

It isn't totally clear why Hauptmann founded a company in July 2020 in Zossen, a town in the state of Brandenburg. Called HGC, which stands for Hauptmann Global Consult GmbH, the company is focused on worldwide import and export deals. What is clear, though, are the advantages that can be derived from such a construct: The representative does not have to publicly report exactly how much the company brings or the clients it works with. As chance would have it, Zossen also has the lowest corporate tax rates in all of Germany.

The Südthüringen Kurier wasn't just popular with the Azerbaijan regime. The more democratically minded Taiwan also saw an advantage in advertising to Hauptmann's readers. An ad for Taiwan has appeared in several issues of the paper since 2015, at a total cost of 24,000 euros. From 2018 to 2020, Vietnam was also in the paper's pages, spending a total of 12,620 euros for the pleasure.

The Wetzlar Kurier, a paper published by the CDU representative Hans-Jürgen Irmer, has also earned money with ads for Taiwan. The paper also publishes press releases from the Taiwanese representation in Germany. "I have supported Taiwan for years against communist China. Nobody has to pay me for that, it is something I do out of conviction," Irmer says. He says he "of course gives Taiwan a special discount."

The CDU's approach to money has always been rather unique. Even Konrad Adenauer, the first head of the CDU and Germany's first postwar chancellor, knew that money was a political resource. When he began, his party had hardly any of it. The CDU's only source of revenues at the time was membership payments – in contrast to the SPD. The Social Democrats had been banned by the Nazis during the Third Reich and received millions in compensation after the war.

Karin Strenz was visited by public prosecutors last year.

Karin Strenz was visited by public prosecutors last year.

Foto: BildFunkMV / imago images

From the very beginning, donations were a focus of the very top echelons of the CDU and Adenauer kept a close eye on how the money was divvied up. The disturbing lack of ethics displayed by Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the late 1990s likely stems from those early days. In December 1999, the year after he was voted out of office, Kohl declared that he had accepted up to 2 million deutsche marks in donations without reporting them. He never revealed where the money came from.

Kohl wasn't the only one who crossed the boundaries. Wolfgang Schäuble, who is the current president of the Bundestag, was forced to admit that he had, in 1994, accepted 100,000 marks in cash from the arms lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber in his office. And in 1991, then-CDU treasurer Walther Leisler Kiep received a million marks in an envelope from the same Karlheinz Schreiber in a meeting at a restaurant in Switzerland.

Some Rules Don't Apply

They all felt it was OK since they figured they were serving their party – not the same thing as personal enrichment. One thing all these incidents seem to have in common is the conviction that some rules simply don't apply.

Despite all of these stories, the Union was always able to come back. They didn't receive support because they were the cleanest, most morally upstanding party, but because a majority of the voters was consistently convinced that the party was good at governing. But that is no longer the case today, and that is why the current crisis is so dangerous.

In this second phase of the pandemic, Merkel's cabinet seems to be completely disoriented. Last year, the government was able to keep the virus more or less under control – with an early shutdown and a lot of luck. Germany was seen as an example to be followed. But then, the government lost its way. Instead of developing a long-term strategy, it continued to take things one day at a time, week in and week out. The number of fatalities continued to climb, and for the last several weeks, the country has been wallowing in a half-hearted shutdown.

Germany suddenly seems ponderous and overly bureaucratic, particularly when it comes to its vaccination program. Whereas the U.S. made vaccine purchases early on in a centrally coordinated effort, the German government left the buying of vaccines to a hesitant European Commission, and then failed to exert the necessary pressure.

Then, instead of agreeing on a master plan for a nationwide vaccination program with the state governors, Merkel bickered with them for hours at a time over incidence rates and the re-opening of home improvement stores. Whereas the U.S. and Britain are on track to offering all of their citizens vaccinations by the end of May and by the end of July, mass vaccination is only just starting in Germany.

Moreover, it is primarily Union ministers who are currently standing out for under-performing.

There’s Health Minister Spahn, the face of this crisis. He has chalked up a considerable list of failures, but he also keeps getting himself and the government into trouble with his overly hasty promises. When he promised free rapid tests for all by March 1, the chancellor even intervened to slow him down. A short time later, it was revealed that Spahn had participated in the fundraising dinner in Saxony. For a brief time last year, Spahn was more popular than the chancellor in polls, but his popularity has since plummeted dramatically.

The rest of Merkel’s team is hardly doing any better.

Transportation Minister Andreas Scheuer of the CSU deceived parliament in the scandal surrounding failures in a government program to collect tolls from heavy trucks and then torpedoed the work of the committee investigating the affair.

Economics Minister Peter Altmaier of the CDU has proven unable to complete the task of disbursing corona crisis aid to businesses.

Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer of the CDU has proven unable to get a grip on the mishap-prone armaments sector nor on far-right elements in one of the armed forces’ prestigious special units.

Education Minister Anja Karliczek of the CDU is watching helplessly as the pandemic exposes the country’s deficits in digitizing the school system.

Meanwhile, Helge Braun, the CDU head of Merkel’s Chancellery, has been looking more like a conductor who has no idea where his orchestra is these days than the federal government’s top corona response coordinator. When the government’s much-maligned app for warning people of exposure to the coronavirus was recently discussed on a talk show, Braun went so far as to ask why the government always had to provide everything in Germany.

Lame Duck

And as far as the chancellor is concerned, she’s a lame duck approaching the end of her term in office. Crises used to be Merkel’s finest hours – she always rose to the occasion. But this time, she doesn’t come across as having the situation  under control.

After he was voted out of office, Helmut Kohl admitted to having received up to 2 million deutsche marks in donations that he didn't report.

After he was voted out of office, Helmut Kohl admitted to having received up to 2 million deutsche marks in donations that he didn't report.

Foto: Marc Darchinger

So, what’s left if the CDU no longer even stands for good governance? The unity that used to be the hallmark of the party has also withered. The recent election of the party’s new chair exposed just how divided the CDU is. The party has no political platform yet for the election and not even a central vision for what the CDU intends to do following 16 years of Merkel in power.

The Social Democrats, meanwhile, have already presented their draft election platforms and the Greens are scheduled to do so soon, but the Union doesn't want to present its plans until the summer, shortly before elections. It’s little wonder that impatience is growing. "In terms of content, we should be moving forward,” says CDU national committee member Röttgen. "We need to be presenting the issues and ideas we want to use to win the election. We need clarity, and time is running out.”

But it sounds easier than it really is. Laschet only narrowly won the election for chairman and doesn't have much flexibility. He’ll have to listen and work with all wings of the party. What the beleaguered conservatives need right now, though, are clear messages and a clear course.

In some ways, the CDU’s crisis is reminiscent of the decline of the SPD. There’s a lack of contour, there is plenty of conflict, and there is a rivalry between the government and the party's parliamentary group. Recent meetings of Union parliamentarians have descended into attacks on party leaders. Economics Minister Altmaier has been a particular focus of the discontent.

Nervousness is widespread within the party, and a sense of fear can even be sensed in some conversations. It’s no longer implausible that the CDU might lose control of the Chancellery in the next election. So far, neither the SPD nor the Greens have benefited from the downward trend in the Union, but mathematically, only minor shifts are needed. It’s also conceivable that the SPD and Greens could join forces with the business-friendly FDP to form a government with SPD head Olaf Scholz as chancellor.

Laschet will have to try to turn things around. But how? The scandal is threatening to undo everything he has set out to do in the coming months. His plan was based entirely on bringing quiet to the party: Peace in the ranks, quiet in the surveys and as little controversy and friction as possible. If he managed that, the thinking goes, a majority of voters would once again back the conservative parties. Instead, a sense of panic is prevailing. And instead of easily crossing the finish line into the Chancellery, Laschet is forced to maneuver his party through the crisis. Is he up to the task?

When the Löbel affair blew up on March 5, Laschet started making phone calls. It was clear to him that Löbel had to go. The party leader spoke to Paul Ziemiak, the CDU’s general secretary, and told him to make it clear to the CDU in Baden-Württemberg that expulsion proceedings would be launched if necessary. The message was quite clear.

Publicly, though, Laschet went into hiding, saying nothing at a time when half the country was agitated over the scandal. Indeed, Laschet didn’t speak publicly until Sunday, March 7. By then, his predecessor as CDU chair Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer had already spoken out. Once again, it seemed like he was late to the party.

"No Plan and No Strategy"

People close to Laschet have defended their boss’ actions. They say that Laschet was acting in the background and that it’s not his style to just send out a tweet and then act in public like he knows everything. "He sorted out the situation within 48 hours, and he did so rather quietly.”

Still, Laschet is in danger of getting sucked into the maelstrom of defeats and poor poll standings, just as his predecessor was. If the party continues to fall in the polls, doubts will be sowed and criticism of the party leadership will grow louder. Critics claim that Laschet has "no plan and no strategy.”

All this would be only half as bad if Laschet could at least provide moral authority in the mask scandal that is beyond any doubt. But Laschet himself is already exposed to the scandal – thanks to his son.

Johannes Laschet is a model and works for the fashion apparel company Van Laack among others. At the end of November, Van Laack CEO Christian von Daniels chatted publicly about the fact that he had secured a major contract from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) for protective equipment and had risen to become the state’s largest producer of masks during the pandemic. The order had been organized by Johannes Laschet. It was a "stroke of luck” that he had such a good connection to the governor’s office in the state, Daniels enthused.

Germany's government has not performed well in the pandemic in recent months: Here, Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer, Bavarian Governor Markus Söder, Health Minister Jens Spahn and Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Germany's government has not performed well in the pandemic in recent months: Here, Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer, Bavarian Governor Markus Söder, Health Minister Jens Spahn and Chancellor Angela Merkel.

And it didn’t stop at one order. On several occasions, Laschet’s government bought protective equipment from Van Laack. In April alone, it purchased close to 40 million euros worth of scrubs. Later, the NRW police ordered masks for 4 million euros – all without a tender. The opposition was furious and spoke of suspicions of distorting competition. Laschet is still fighting allegations of cronyism to this day.

The state government, for its part, has defended itself, saying decisions have to be made quickly in a pandemic. But a law firm in the city of Koblenz has concluded in a legal opinion that Laschet’s government "grossly violated the prevailing regulations of public procurement law” when it awarded its first contract to Van Laack. The law firm said there was no justification for conducting the award procedure "in such a non-transparent manner and with only one company.”

The state’s procurement authority is also looking into the matter. The office hopes to determine whether it was legal for the state government to order 1.25 million cloth masks for police officers from Van Laack in November. The Interior Ministry in Düsseldorf then withdrew the contract and announced it would issue a new EU-wide invitation to tender. All of a sudden, an actual orderly bidding process took shape that supposedly hadn’t been possible before. The deadline for the submission of tenders recently expired. Van Laack has also applied again, says CEO Daniels. And if the company doesn’t win the bid this time? "That would be relevant damage for us that we would then have to claim,” says Daniels. The masks that he produced bear the state seal: "I can’t just sell them to a supermarket chain or send them to America,” he says. This means Laschet is also threatened with claims for damages.

On top of all that, a strong rival is also lurking in Munich: Bavarian Governor Markus Söder. Söder knows that in upper echelons of politics, you need to be as little exposed to attack as possible. When he became governor of Bavaria three years ago, he immediately threw out Ludwig Spaenle as his state’s education minister. Spaenle is the godfather of Söder’s son – and people say Söder didn’t want any rumors about family connections to pop up.

Blurring the Lines

For Söder, the CSU is a party with its feet firmly planted in the ground – one in which politicians spend their time traveling in second class rather than hanging out in first class lounges. When he affords himself a luxury privately, then it’s something like a large television in the living room, Söder says.

Söder is well aware of his party’s long history of affairs and scandals – and that makes him even more determined to position himself as a blemish-free politician. The mask crisis could have been his moment if it weren’t for the fact that the whole scandal began with the Nüsslein case. With a politician from the CSU.

"He’s still raging,” one member of the CSU’s party executive says of Söder, long after the accusations against Nüsslein first surfaced. The state governor’s office is said to have immediately requested a list from the state’s health ministry of names of members of parliament who have lobbied for mask manufacturers.

But further trouble is also looming. One relationship that is likely to be the subject of closer scrutiny is that between mask lobbyist Andrea Tandler and Monika Hohlmeier, a member of the European Parliament with the CSU. Tandler’s father Gerold and Hohlmeier’s father Franz Josef Strauss were long time friends in the CSU swamp. A year ago, Hohlmeier opened doors for Tandler to Federal Health Minister Spahn.

Tandler then exchanged mails directly with the minister, and the ministry placed a large order from the Swiss company Emix, for which Tandler sought buyers on the German market. Hohlmeier denies any personal gain, but it’s striking: Other suppliers never got responses to their offers, but Emix secured a deal with outrageously expensive masks. With a rumored volume of up to 800 million euros from Spahn’s ministry alone – neither Spahn nor Emix have provided any figures – Tandler is likely to have become a multimillionaire in the meantime given the usual market commissions. She isn’t discussing that either. Florian von Brunn, a member of the state parliament with the Social Democrats has filed a criminal complaint against unknown persons at the Munich Public Prosecutor’s Office because Bavaria also bought from Emix.

The scandal is currently growing more dangerous for the CSU by the day – also for Söder. The Bavarian Health Ministry was also one of the major customers of the apparently well-oiled mask connection. A search warrant shows that anti-corruption investigators recently went looking not only for documents relating to Nüsslein’s company and various offshore firms, but also communication that took place with Alfred Sauter, the former Bavarian state justice minister with the CSU. Sauter drew up the contracts for the mask deliveries to the Bavarian Health Ministry.

Last Wednesday, new searches were conducted in Munich, this time at the home of Michael Kraess, lobbyist with high-level contacts within the CSU leadership. The Munich Public Prosecutor’s Office is now listing him as a defendant and has initiated investigations into him on initial suspicions of "bribery of office holders.” Neither Kraess nor his lawyers could be reached for comment on the allegations by the time this issue went to press.

This is the backdrop against which Söder and Laschet will have to vie with each other over which of the politicians is appointed as the Union's joint chancellor candidate. It is the question of all questions and could even set the course for the next decade. There is growing pressure within the party to decide on the matter as soon as possible.

Söder has always clearly seen the risks of a candidacy and talked about it early on with confidants. To win an election, you need troops, he once said internally of the CDU, "not a military hospital.”

That was long before three members of parliament had to resign because of scandals within days of each other. And his own party was back at the center of scandals that have haunted it over the years of cronyism and a blurring of the line between politics and business.