German Chancellor Merkel’s party slumps to historic low in regional elections

(From left) The Greens regional parliamentary group leader Andreas Schwarz, Sandra Detzer and Muhterem Aras react as exit poll results are published at the state parliament in Stuttgart, on March 14, 2021.
(From left) The Greens regional parliamentary group leader Andreas Schwarz, Sandra Detzer and Muhterem Aras react as exit poll results are published at the state parliament in Stuttgart, on March 14, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

BERLIN (BLOOMBERG) – The German Green party’s efforts to seize the chancellorship got a major boost on Sunday (March 14) after Dr Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union suffered a rout in regional elections.

With Dr Merkel due to step aside after September’s national vote, her party slumped to its worst results ever in two regional ballots on Sunday, as voters vented their frustration over the government’s handling of the pandemic and the slow pace of vaccinations.

The Greens were the big winners of the night, cementing their decade-long hold on power in Baden-Wuerttemberg with a third straight victory in the western state. They also gained the most support in neighboring Rhineland-Palatinate, where they govern with the Social Democrats – who remained the strongest party – and the liberal Free Democrats.

The two elections, 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. 

And the results suggest that the CDU’s new leader, Mr Armin Laschet, has a major problem: Although the conservative bloc is still the strongest force nationally, support is dwindling and the Greens have the wind at their backs.

Mr Paul Ziemiak, CDU general secretary, tried to ease pressure on the party’s leader by saying the results were personal victories of the respective state premiers and unrelated to national issues. Still, he said the party needs to do better.

“We know that the coronavirus pandemic and the crisis management is troubling people, and we all have to ask ourselves where can we be faster, where can we be more pragmatic and where can be better,” Mr Ziemiak said on Monday in an interview with ARD television.

In Baden-Wuerttemberg – an affluent industrial hub in the southwest – the CDU’s support slumped by 2.9 points compared with the last election in 2016 to 24.1 per cent, according to official preliminary results. 

The Greens, led by popular state premier Winfried Kretschmann, won 32.6 per cent, a gain of 2.3 points. The two parties are in coalition there together, but the results could prod the Greens to explore alternatives.

In neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate, the CDU scored 27.7 per cent, shedding 4.1 points, the preliminary results showed. The Social Democrats got 35.7 per cent of the vote, 0.5 points down from 2016, while the Greens climbed 4 points to 9.3 per cent.

The far-right Alternative for Germany suffered the worst losses in support in both states.

An alliance between the conservatives and the Greens remains the most likely outcome of September’s vote. But Sunday’s results raise the prospect of an alternative outcome: The environmentalist party – which has only governed at the federal level under the SPD’s Mr Gerhard Schroeder – could instead lead a coalition that includes the SPD, the FDP or even the Left party.

“This success will be a tailwind for the federal elections,” Mr Robert Habeck, the Greens co-leader, said on Sunday. The results show that the party – which is polling at around 20 per cent on a national basis compared with Dr Merkel’s CDU/CSU on just over 30 per cent – will have “various options” available after the Sept 26 national vote, he added.

“Public trust in politics has eroded,” Mr Habeck said. “The reason for this is the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic and, above all, the corruption scandals” involving parliamentarians from Dr Merkel’s bloc.

Christian Democratic Union goes into polling on March 14, 2021. ST PHOTO: AFP

The situation for the CDU isn’t getting easier, with infections rising again amid cautious efforts to ease Germany’s lockdown. The contagion rate increased on Monday to 82.9 cases per 100,000 people over seven days, the highest since Feb 3, according to the RKI public-health institute.

German voters initially responded positively to the ruling coalition’s management of the coronavirus outbreak. But the stuttering pace of the vaccine rollout, irritation 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.

Mr Laschet – who will hold a news conference Monday in Berlin to address the election results – wants to run to replace Dr Merkel after September but is hampered by his lack of popularity.

His main rival for the conservative nomination, Bavarian Premier Markus Soeder who heads the smaller CSU party in the southern state, is one of the country’s most popular politicians. While the CDU is the dominant partner and typically provides the bloc’s candidate, Mr Soeder’s bid could be bolstered by the CDU’s poor election results.

Mr Laschet is still likely to secure the nomination even though he’s been weakened by the results, according to Berenberg Chief Economist Holger Schmieding. The party elected Mr Laschet in January after Merkel protege Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer stepped down following series of gaffes and flagging popularity.

“The losses for the CDU are not unexpected, and Laschet is probably not to be blamed for the result,” Mr Schmieding said Sunday by telephone.

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. A decision on who will lead the ticket is expected after Easter.

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 Dr Merkel’s potential successor and portray himself as the man with the experience needed to run the country.

“This is a good day because it shows that the formation of a government is possible in Germany without the CDU,” Mr Scholz said on ARD after the initial results. “That’s the signal from today’s elections.”