The CDU, the party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, suffered record defeats in two regional votes on Sunday amid anger over a muddled coronavirus response, including a face mask procurement scandal and a sluggish vaccine rollout.
Sunday’s rout in the southwestern states of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate raised questions about the CDU’s chances in a September 26 general election, when Germans will choose a successor to Merkel.
“It can’t go on like this,” the Der Spiegel weekly said, adding Merkel’s house was “on fire”.
In the southwestern automotive hub of Baden-Wuerttemberg, the Greens won 31.4 percent of the vote and the CDU 23.4 percent, projections based on early results for broadcaster ZDF showed.
In neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate, the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD) came first again with 35.5 percent of the vote ahead of the CDU, which led there in opinion polls until last month but secured only 26.9 percent support in Sunday’s election.
The results were the CDU’s worst in post-World War II Germany in both states.
“This is not a good election evening for the CDU,” a glum-looking Paul Ziemiak, the party’s secretary general, told reporters after the exit poll results.
The Greens were jubilant.
“This is a super start to the super election year,” said Robert Habeck, the co-leader of the Greens, suggesting that the outcome was a good omen in a national election year.
‘A lot is possible’
Along with fears of a potential third coronavirus wave, CDU officials worry the party’s reputation took a hit in the last two weeks when several conservative legislators quit over allegations they received payments for arranging procurement deals.
The CDU has seen its national popularity wane from 40 percent last June, when Germany was widely praised for its response to the coronavirus pandemic, to approximately 33 percent this month.
The SPD’s candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said Sunday’s results showed a national government without the CDU and its Bavarian CSU sister party could be possible after September’s vote.
“A lot is possible,” he told broadcaster ARD.
Both regional election results open the way for potential regional alliances of the Greens, SPD and liberal Free Democrats (FDP), which had already governed in Rhineland-Palatinate before Sunday’s election.
CDU leaders fear the same constellation of parties could gain enough support to leave their party in opposition at the national level at September’s federal vote.
Markus Blume, the CSU secretary-general, called Sunday’s drubbing a “wake-up call” for the CDU/CSU.
If Germany’s largest bloc wants to stay in power when Merkel bows out after 16 years, it urgently needs to “win back trust”, he said.
“We need clear decisions and a clear course in the fight against the coronavirus,” he added.
The first order of business should be to decide the bloc’s candidate for chancellor, media outlet Spiegel said.
New CDU chief Armin Laschet is the obvious choice but he lacks broad support.
Critics say he has failed to carve out a political profile beyond representing continuity in the post-Merkel era.
Laschet needs to “free himself from Merkel’s shadow” and “say what the party stands for”, Andreas Roedder, a historian at Mainz University and a CDU member, told the Bild daily.
Opinion polls suggest Germans would prefer to see popular Bavarian premier and CSU leader Markus Soeder in the top job but he has yet to declare a willingness to run.
If Soeder genuinely has ambitions to be chancellor, “he must strike now”, the Handelsblatt financial daily said.
No German chancellor has ever come from the CSU. Soeder and Laschet want to settle the candidacy matter by May 23.
The conservatives’ woes come as Germany braces for a third COVID-19 wave, even while proceeding with a gradual reopening of schools and non-essential shops.
Latest forecasts by the country’s Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases predict that by mid-April, new infections could surpass the peak seen in December, when some 30,000 cases were reported every day.
Merkel and the premiers of Germany’s 16 federal states will discuss the next steps in the pandemic fight on March 22.