German Regional Elections Present Crunch Test for Merkel's Party

A man wearing a face mask leaves a polling station in Ludwigsburg, southern Germany, after casting his ballot for state elections in the southern German federal state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, on March 14, 2021. (AFP)

German voters looked set to punish the ruling Christian Democrats in two regional elections on Sunday for a long coronavirus lockdown and face mask procurement scandal, denting their prospects of retaining power later this year.

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 neighboring 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 now gathers pace.

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", reported Reuters.

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 colors 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.