Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right party was headed for clear defeats in two German state elections on Sunday, exit polls have indicated.
The elections come six months before a national vote that will determine who succeeds the country’s long-time 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 national election on September 26.
Amid discontent over a sluggish start to Germany’s vaccination drive, with coronavirus restrictions easing only gradually and infections rising again, Ms Merkel’s Union bloc has been hit over the past two weeks by allegations that two politicians profited from deals to procure masks early in the coronavirus pandemic.
Ms 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 in Rhineland-Palatinate – were set to finish first, around eight percentage points ahead of the CDU. Those results, if confirmed, would be the party’s worst in Germany in both states since the Second World War.
“To say it very clearly, this isn’t a good election evening for the CDU,” the party’s general secretary Paul Ziemiak said.
“We would have liked different, better results.”
Wolfgang Schaeuble, the speaker of Germany’s parliament and a CDU heavyweight, sought to downplay the outcome, arguing that the governors’ personalities had been the decisive factor in the elections.
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 carmakers Daimler and Porsche.
The region was long dominated by the CDU until Mr Kretschmann won power shortly after Japan’s 2011 Fukushima reactor disaster, which accelerated the end of nuclear power in Germany.
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.
Ms Merkel is not seeking a fifth term after nearly 16 years in power.
The Greens’ national co-leader, Robert Habeck, described Sunday’s votes as “a super start to the super election year, and we will hopefully be able to take the tailwind from Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate at full sail”.
The centre-left Social Democrats 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.
The far-right Alternative for Germany party appeared to have lost some support in both states.