Merkel’s CDU suffers record setback in state elections – UPDATED

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BERLIN, March 14 (Reuters) – Germany’s Christian Democrats slumped to record defeats in two regional votes on Sunday after a muddled coronavirus response, dealing a setback to the party which must contest federal elections in September without Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Anger over a face mask procurement scandal in the CDU is compounding frustration among Germans with Merkel’s conservative-led coalition over a sluggish coronavirus vaccine rollout caused by supply shortages and excessive bureaucracy.

In the southwestern automotive hub of Baden-Wuerttemberg, the Greens won 31.5% of the vote and the CDU 23%, down from the 27% the conservatives polled at the last state election in 2016, an exit poll for broadcaster ZDF showed.

In neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate, the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD) came first again with 33.5% of the vote ahead of the CDU, which led there in opinion polls until last month but secured only 25.5% support in Sunday’s election.

Along with fears of a potential third coronavirus wave, CDU officials worry the party’s reputation took a hit in the last two weeks when several conservative lawmakers quit over allegations they received payments for arranging procurement deals.

The CDU has seen its national popularity wane from 40% last June, when Germany was widely praised for its response to the coronavirus pandemic, to around 33% this month.

Both regional election results open the way for potential regional alliances of the Greens, SPD and liberal Free Democrats, which already governed in Rhineland-Palatinate before Sunday’s election.

The CDU leaders fear the same constellation of parties could gain enough support to leave their party in opposition at national level at September’s federal vote.

The results are a also blow to CDU party chairman Armin Laschet, who took pole position in the race to succeed Merkel by winning the CDU leadership two months ago.

After 16 years in power, Merkel is not seeking re-election in September, leaving the CDU without the ‘Merkel bonus’ that helped her conservative bloc win four consecutive national elections.

The loss in Baden-Wuerttemberg, where the CDU has been junior coalition partner to the Greens for the last five years, could help Laschet’s Bavarian rival Markus Soeder in their contest to be the conservative chancellor candidate.

Soeder and Laschet want to settle the candidacy matter by May 23. No German chancellor has ever come from the CSU.

Turnout in both states was lower than in the last election by early afternoon, in part due to a large number of postal votes, said officials.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, in power since 2005, is not seeking re-election in September and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is already missing the “Merkel bonus” she has brought them with four consecutive national election victories.

The CDU went into Sunday’s polling in the southwestern auto hub of Baden-Wuerttemberg and the neighbouring wine-growing region of Rhineland-Palatinate with its poll numbers sliding, exacerbated by the face mask corruption scandal.

Support for the CDU at the national level slid to 31% this week, its lowest for almost a year, according to an opinion poll conducted by Kantar for the Bild am Sonntag newspaper, although the next strongest party, the Greens, was stuck on 19%.

While Merkel’s government won plaudits last year for initially getting the coronavirus under control, it has faced mounting criticism due to the slow pace of vaccinations and a long lockdown as a third wave of infections gathers pace. In the once-safe CDU region of Baden-Wuerttemberg, the party risks being replaced as junior coalition partner to the Greens by the Social Democrats (SPD) and liberal Free Democrats.

In Rhineland-Palatinate, where such a “traffic light” coalition of party colours already governs, the CDU was leading in opinion polls as recently as late February but has now slipped behind the left-leaning SPD.

CDU leaders fear that if a traffic light alliance ousts them from government in Baden-Wuerttemberg, then such a tie-up could gain credibility at September’s federal vote – and could leave the party in opposition at national level.

Its image has been tarnished by the face mask scandal, which has seen conservative lawmakers quit over allegations they received payments for arranging procurement deals.

Sunday’s elections will also have ramifications within the conservative bloc of the CDU and its Bavaria sister party, which together run the federal government in coalition with the SPD.

While new CDU leader Armin Laschet is in pole position to succeed Merkel, defeat in Baden-Wuerttemberg could help his Bavarian rival Markus Soeder in his bid to become the conservative candidate for chancellor in September.

About a thousand opponents of the lockdown protested outside the health ministry in Berlin on Saturday while dozens of cars drove in convoy through the city to demand a lifting of restrictions, plastered with slogans like “Fear is contagious”.

In the eastern city of Dresden, several hundred anti-lockdown demonstrators clashed with police on Saturday, leaving several officers injured, several German media reported. (Writing by Paul Carrel and Emma Thomasson; Editing by Mike Harrison and David Clarke)

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