BERLIN — Olaf Scholz made a political career out of presenting himself as a no-nonsense decider, telling voters that “anyone who orders leadership from me will get it.” Now, his first big initiative as German chancellor — to make coronavirus vaccination compulsory — is in trouble because he has outsourced the decision to impose it.
Scholz made an early push for mandatory vaccination in late November, a week before the Social Democrat was elected chancellor, saying he wanted to launch the scheme by early February in order to boost Germany’s vaccine rollout, which is lagging behind many other EU countries.
He was one of many politicians who had rejected mandatory vaccination but changed their mind as the highly infectious Omicron variant emerged, fueling concerns that the 28 percent of the German population who are not fully vaccinated could end up swelling a pandemic death toll that has now reached 115,000.
Later, he pushed back the launch to March. Now, his party admits the debate over the plan could take many months. And some political analysts say the mandate may never happen.
“Olaf Scholz has made a big mistake,” said Albrecht von Lucke, a political analyst and commentator.
He said Scholz and other politicians backing the measure were guilty of “needlessly putting themselves under pressure” by committing to a policy that may not be enforceable, proportionate and therefore constitutional — let alone conducive to social peace.
Even if German voters did order up a helping of leadership, Scholz, as leader of a three-party coalition, faces constraints on his ability to deliver. With vaccines, he has to take into account the views of his smallest coalition ally, the Free Democrats, a liberal party that has opposed pandemic measures that cut into personal freedoms.
In deciding not to propose legislation and instead agreeing for lawmakers to have a free vote on the issue, the 63-year-old chancellor may succeed in avoiding conflict in the coalition. But he has also effectively abandoned all pretense of forcing the issue to a conclusion, leaving MPs to come up with their own proposals and then hammer out a compromise — a process that could take weeks, or even months.
Dirk Wiese, the deputy leader of Scholz’s Social Democrats in the Bundestag, sought this week to lower expectations by saying the mandatory vaccination would only be needed in the fall.
“A universal vaccination requirement is not the tool to break the current wave,” said Wiese. “We will not be artificially driven on the issue.”
Germany reported a record 81,000 cases of COVID-19 on Thursday as the Omicron variant — which has already raged in Britain, France and neighboring Denmark — takes hold. The seven-day incidence of cases hit 428 per 100,000 people, according to the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases.
With the vaccination campaign again slowing, Scholz’s goal of ensuring that 80 percent of the population gets at least a first jab by the end of this month looks to be slipping out of reach.
‘Democratic leadership’ or ‘refusal to lead’?
Germany’s conservative opposition, fresh from being ousted after 16 straight years in power, senses an opportunity to inflict a first political defeat on Scholz. While leaders of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) publicly back mandatory vaccination, they are chiding Scholz over the delays.
“If the chancellor says in the greatest crisis of our time that [mandatory vaccination] is the way out of the crisis, then the chancellor and his government must submit a legislative proposal to do this in an ethically and constitutionally correct way,” Thorsten Frei, the conservatives’ chief whip, told a parliamentary debate on Wednesday.
Scholz replied that vaccination was “about our bodies … and that’s why it’s just such a case where you should go this way,” referring to his decision to let MPs take the lead.
Handing the initiative to parliament was an example of “democratic leadership,” he added.
Not everybody agrees. Von Lucke reached for a German compound word “Führungsverweigerung” — or “refusal to lead” — to describe Scholz’s tactics. “Of course he has leadership responsibility. The chancellor sets the policy guidelines, and in a dispute as essential as mandatory vaccination, of course [leadership] would be required,” von Lucke said.
Jürgen Falter, a professor of political science at Mainz University, said that Scholz appeared to have underestimated the resistance from prominent FDP lawmakers when he adopted a tough line in November.
“He cannot be sure that the coalition will follow him and thus does not want to look like a weak chancellor,” said Falter. “He is renouncing leadership as the chancellor of all Germans because coalition peace is more important to him in the current situation.”
A parliamentary vote on the mandatory vaccination might only happen in March, and afterwards Germany’s upper house — the Bundesrat — will also have to vote on the bill, meaning it could only come into force by May or later.
That’s provided there will even be a majority in both houses for mandatory vaccination, given that the political momentum might decrease if coronavirus cases fall in the spring. Falter also pointed out that Omicron was less lethal than the Delta variant, which posed the question of “whether the pandemic cannot be defeated by other, less intrusive means.”
Adding to Scholz’s woes, Thomas Mertens, the chairman of Germany’s Standing Committee on Vaccination (STIKO), on Thursday spoke out against a vaccination mandate. “This divides society, too much pressure is built up,” Mertens told the Stuttgarter Nachrichten newspaper, raising doubts about whether a mandate could be enforced.
But Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, argued Scholz had been “very smart” by handing the initiative to parliament. Scholz not only defused a potential first crisis in his government but also came up with a solution that might produce a better end result.
Benner said “there will be a number of draft laws developed by different constellations in parliament,” including for example limiting the mandatory vaccination to people aged 50 or older. Parliament might end up with a plan that’s better suited to the way the pandemic develops in the months ahead, rather than one tied to an assessment of the situation from last November, he said.
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