German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union crashed to its worst results in two regional elections since World War II, as voters vented their frustration over the government’s handling of the pandemic and the slow pace of vaccinations.
With Merkel’s exit looming after September’s national election, support for the CDU slumped by four points to 23% in the western state of Baden-Wuerttemberg compared with the last election in 2016, an exit poll from public broadcaster ARD showed. The Greens, led by popular state premier Winfried Kretschmann, cemented their decade-long hold on power with a third straight victory, winning 31%, 0.7 points more than five years ago.
In neighboring Rhineland-Palatinate, the CDU scored 26%, also finishing in second place but shedding 5.8 points compared with 2016. The Social Democrats, who rule the state in coalition with the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats, lost ground but remained the strongest party on 34.5%, 1.7 points down on 2016.
The two elections Sunday, held under strict hygiene and distancing rules, gave voters a first opportunity to express their discontent at the ballot box over missteps in Merkel’s pandemic strategy.
The stuttering pace of the vaccine rollout, frustration with lockdown restrictions in place since late last year and a widening scandal over claims that some conservative lawmakers profited from the pandemic have all taken a toll.
The CDU’s poor showing in Baden-Wuerttemberg — the home of carmakers Porsche and Mercedes-Benz — raises questions about whether the Greens will decide to continue with their current coalition or seek a different partner.
The results are a major setback for new CDU leader Armin Laschet, who wants to run to replace Merkel after September’s general election but is hampered by his relative unpopularity. By contrast, his main rival for the conservative nomination, Bavaria Premier Markus Soeder, is one of the country’s most popular politicians.
Soeder heads the smaller, Bavaria-based CSU party. While the CDU is the dominant partner and typically provides the bloc’s chancellor candidate, his bid could be bolstered by Laschet’s struggles.
Whoever secures the nomination — a decision is expected after Easter — will have to deal with an erosion in support after voters initially responded positively to the government’s management of the coronavirus outbreak.
The CDU/CSU’s reputation took another blow in recent days after three parliamentarians resigned because of allegations they made money from face-mask deals. Laschet — who runs Germany’s most populous state of North-Rhine Westphalia — has been drawn deeper into the scandal through his son Johannes, who facilitated a deal for local police.
Laschet canceled the order for 1.25 million masks after a parliamentary investigation revealed there hadn’t been a tender. That could burden him as he tries to bolster his image as a potential leader of Europe’s biggest economy.
Despite its challenges, the conservative bloc still has a clear lead in national polls and the next chancellor will likely come from within its ranks. They may opt to rule in a coalition with the Greens, who are currently the second-strongest party and whose victory in Baden-Wuerttemberg will further bolster their national standing. The Social Democrats are third and the far-right AfD fourth.
The SPD has already chosen its chancellor candidate in Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, though his bid is a long shot with the party trailing in the polls.
The current vice chancellor has already been campaigning hard, seeking to profit from the conservatives’ decision to delay their choice of Merkel’s potential successor and portray himself as the man with the experience needed to run the country.