German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right party is projected to suffer clear defeats in two state elections held six months before a national vote that will determine who succeeds the country’s longtime leader.
Sunday’s votes for new state legislatures in the southwestern states of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate kicked off an electoral marathon that culminates in the September 26 general vote.
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Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) already faced a challenging task against two popular state governors from rival parties. Exit polls for ARD and ZDF television indicated that those governors’ parties – the environmentalist Greens in Baden-Wuerttemberg and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) in Rhineland-Palatinate – were set to finish first, some 8 percentage points ahead of the CDU.
The Greens won 31.5 percent of the vote in Baden-Wuerttemberg and the CDU 23 percent, down from the 27 percent it polled at the last state election in 2016, according to the ZDF polls.
In neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate, the SPD came first again with 33.5 percent of the vote ahead of the CDU, which led there in opinion polls until last month but was projected to have secured only 25.5 percent support in Sunday’s election.
Those results, if confirmed, would be CDU’s worst in post-World War II Germany in both states.
Amid discontent over a sluggish start to Germany’s vaccination drive against COVID-19, with coronavirus restrictions easing only gradually and infections rising again, Merkel’s bloc has been hit over the past two weeks by allegations that two legislators profited from deals to procure masks early in the pandemic.
But Wolfgang Schaeuble, the speaker of Germany’s parliament and a CDU heavyweight sought to downplay the outcome of Sunday’s polls, arguing that the governors’ personalities had been the decisive factor in the elections.
“This isn’t a good evening for the CDU, but that was predictable,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s Dominic Kane, reporting from Berlin, said the election results “spelled really bad news for the Christian Democrats”.
“Although they were not the main party in government in either [voting] state, they are ruing the effects of a scandal at the federal parliament level,” Kane said. “That appears to have cost the party in the polls.”
With only six months to the general elections, the Christian Democrats find themselves “shedding votes when they are searching for somebody who can lead them in those elections as a vote winner,” he added.
The polls posed the first major test for new CDU leader Armin Laschet since his election in January, as the centre-right considers who should run to replace Merkel as chancellor.
Laschet says he and Markus Soeder, the Christian Social Union leader and Bavarian governor who is the other serious contender to run for chancellor, will decide on the centre-right candidate to succeed Merkel in April or May. Soeder has gained stature during the pandemic.
In Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany’s only Green party governor, Winfried Kretschmann, has become popular with centrist voters in 10 years running a region that is home to automakers Daimler and Porsche.
The region was long dominated by the CDU until Kretschmann won power shortly after Japan’s 2011 Fukushima reactor disaster, which accelerated the end of nuclear power in Germany.
Kretschmann, 72, a fatherly figure with a conservative image, features on Green election posters with the slogan “You know me”. That is a slogan Merkel famously once used in a pre-election debate to underline her own largely ideology-free appeal.
The Greens’ success there this time is a hopeful signal for the national election campaign, in which the traditionally left-leaning environmentalist party is expected to make its first bid for the chancellery. Merkel is not seeking a fifth term after nearly 16 years in power.
The SPD, meanwhile, have led Rhineland-Palatinate for 30 years – currently under governor Malu Dreyer, whose personal popularity has kept her party’s support above its dismal national ratings.