Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party heads for defeat on Sunday, months before a nationwide vote on who will replace her.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right party is set to suffer flagrant defeats in two national elections held six months ahead of a nationwide vote that will determine who succeeds the country’s longtime leader.
Sunday’s votes for the new state legislatures in the southwestern states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate kicked off an electoral marathon that culminates with the general vote on September 26.
Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was already facing a difficult task against two popular state governors from rival parties. ARD and ZDF exit polls indicated that the parties of these governors – the Green environmentalists of Baden-Württemberg and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) of Rhineland-Palatinate – were to finish first, around 8 percentage points ahead of the CDU. .
The Greens won 31.5% of the vote in Baden-Württemberg and the CDU 23%, against 27% in the last national elections in 2016, according to ZDF polls.
In neighboring Rhineland-Palatinate, the SPD came in first again with 33.5% of the vote ahead of the CDU, which led in opinion polls until last month, but are expected to get just 25.5 % support in Sunday’s election.
These results, if confirmed, would be the worst of the CDU in Germany after WWII in both states.
Amid discontent over a slow start to Germany’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign, with coronavirus restrictions only gradually easing and infections on the rise again, Merkel’s bloc has been hit in the over the past two weeks by allegations that two lawmakers took advantage of deals to procure masks at the start of the pandemic.
But Wolfgang Schaeuble, the speaker of the German parliament and a heavyweight of the CDU sought to play down the result of Sunday’s polls, arguing that the personality of the governors had been the deciding factor in the elections.
“It’s not a good night for the CDU, but it was predictable,” he said.
Dominic Kane of Al Jazeera, who reports from Berlin, said the election results “were very bad news for the Christian Democrats.”
“Although they were not the main party in government, nor [voting] State, they are ruining the effects of a scandal at the federal parliament level, ”Kane said. “It seems to have cost the party in the polls.”
Just six months away from the general election, the Christian Democrats find themselves “losing votes when they look for someone who can lead them to these elections as the winner,” he added.
The polls have posed the first major test for new CDU chief Armin Laschet since his election in January, as the center-right considers who should stand to replace Merkel as chancellor.
Laschet says he and Markus Soeder, the leader of the Christian Social Union and governor of Bavaria, who is the other strong candidate for chancellor, will decide on the center-right candidate to succeed Merkel in April or May. Soeder gained stature during the pandemic.
In Baden-Württemberg, Germany’s only Green Party governor, Winfried Kretschmann, has become popular with centrist voters in 10 years as the head of a region home to automakers Daimler and Porsche.
The region was dominated by the CDU for a long time until Kretschmann came to power shortly after the Japanese Fukushima reactor disaster in 2011, which hastened the end of nuclear power in Germany.
Kretschmann, 72, a father figure with a conservative image, appears on green election posters with the slogan “You know me”. It’s a slogan Merkel once used in a pre-election debate to underline her own largely ideologically devoid of appeal.
The success of the Greens there is this time a signal of hope for the national election campaign, during which the traditionally left-wing environmentalist party is expected to make its first candidacy for the chancellery. Merkel is not looking for a fifth term after nearly 16 years in office.
The SPD, meanwhile, has ruled Rhineland-Palatinate for 30 years – currently under Governor Malu Dreyer, whose personal popularity has kept his party’s support above its dismal national ratings.