BERLIN – Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right party suffered clear defeats in two German state elections on Sunday at the hands of popular governors from parties further to the left, according to projections. The setback comes 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 which features another four state ballots and the Sept. 26 national election.
Amid discontent over a sluggish start to Germany’s vaccination drive, with most coronavirus restrictions still in place and infections rising again, Merkel’s Union bloc has been hit over the past two weeks by allegations that two lawmakers profited from deals to procure masks early in the coronavirus pandemic.
Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union already faced a challenging task against well-liked governors. Projections for ARD and ZDF public television, based on exit polls and a partial count of votes, showed those governors’ parties -- the environmentalist Greens in Baden-Wuerttemberg and the center-left Social Democrats in Rhineland-Palatinate -- finishing first, some 7 to 9 percentage points ahead of the CDU. The CDU's projected showings of about 23% and 27%, respectively, were the party's worst since World War II in both states.
“To say it very clearly, this isn't a good election evening for the CDU,” said the party's general secretary, Paul Ziemiak. “We would have liked different, better results.”
Familiar, popular and reassuring incumbents appeared to have been a decisive factor in the elections as the pandemic enters its second year. That's one advantage the CDU can't count on in September. Merkel isn’t seeking a fifth term after nearly 16 years in power.
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 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, featured on Green election posters with the slogan “You know me.” Merkel once used that slogan in a pre-election debate to underline her own largely ideology-free appeal.