Germany Launches Election Year With Losses for Merkel’s Party in Two States

BERLIN — Voters in two southwestern German states punished Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party in regional elections on Sunday...

BERLIN — Voters in two southwestern German states punished Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party in regional elections on Sunday, early results showed, turning from the Christian Democrats in record numbers amid the coronavirus pandemic and a growing scandal over lawmakers who accepted kickbacks for selling masks.

The elections in the states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate were the first in a year that will see voting for new legislators in four more states, and for the country’s Parliament. In September, Germans will choose a new chancellor and government to take over Europe’s largest economy after 16 years under Ms. Merkel’s leadership.

Projections based on partial vote counts showed the conservative party poised to lose support in both states. The results pointed to challenges the party faces in trying to restore confidence lost after three conservative lawmakers — including one representing a district in Baden-Württemberg — were forced to resign after revelations they had received compensation worth tens of thousands of euros for arranging the sale of medical-grade masks to municipalities when supplies were tight.

“Today was not a good election evening for the Christian Democratic Union,” Paul Ziemiak, secretary general of the party, said Sunday at a news conference after the polls had closed. “We wanted to see better results.”

The Christian Democrats saw support drop by at least four percentage points compared with 2016 in the state of Baden-Württemberg and more than five percentage points in Rhineland-Palatinate, according to projections. Although the party came in second place, the losses still amounted to the worst showing since the end of World War II for the conservatives in each of the states.

The Greens, by contrast, made gains in both states, reflecting the party’s steadily growing popularity. That could help it emerge as the strongest force in the September national election, raising the prospect that Germany could see its first Greens chancellor.

Under Chancellor Angela Merkel, the conservatives have built up an image of being Germany’s indispensable natural government party; this image is fading,” said Arne Jungjohann, a political scientist who is close to the Greens party. “The conservatives no longer have a lock on the chancellorship.”

In Baden-Württemberg, voters gave Winfried Kretschmann of the Greens a third term in office, with projections showing the party in the lead with nearly a third of the vote. It ran a campaign largely focused on his personality. Under the slogan “You know me,” Mr. Kretschmann, 72, promised to continue his party’s consensus-seeking policies of the past five years.

Voters in neighboring Rhineland-Palatinate also sought to return the incumbent governor to office, with the Social Democrats emerging as the strongest party by taking roughly a third of the vote, early results showed. Based on those figures, the Social Democrats would be able to continue their coalition government, led by Malu Dreyer, with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats.

Sunday’s voting took place after largely muted election campaigns that were overshadowed by the threat of the coronavirus and driven online by lockdowns. Germany has seen a recent increase in infections in recent days, and fewer voters turned out in both states compared with five years ago. At least half the ballots in each state were submitted by mail.

The Alternative for Germany, or AfD, also suffered losses in both states, preliminary results showed, although the party remained the third-largest force in each of the states.

The party blamed a recent attempt by the German domestic intelligence service to place it under observation on suspicion of posing a threat to the Constitution. Yet despite the AfD’s populist, anti-establishment stance, the party has not been able to capitalize on growing criticism of the government’s inability to secure enough vaccines and its patchwork reliance on lockdowns.

Three conservative lawmakers in the federal Parliament have resigned over the mask scandal, including a member of the Christian Democratic Union representing a district in Baden-Württemberg. Another conservative lawmaker from the state of Thuringia, as well as a member of the Christian Social Union, the conservative party in the state of Bavaria, also resigned.

After the payouts came to light, party leaders required all 240 conservative lawmakers to sign a declaration pledging they had not used their position for financial gain in connection with fighting the pandemic.

The conservatives’ poor showing could pose a challenge to Armin Laschet, who took over as leader of the Christian Democratic Union in January. Many in the party are not certain he will become the candidate in the race to replace Ms. Merkel.

Normally the party would put forward its leader as the candidate in the race for the chancellor, but Mr. Laschet has so far proved to be less popular with the German public than the governor of Bavaria, Markus Söder, who could instead be tapped as the conservative candidate.

Mr. Söder has raised his profile as someone who has taken tough, decisive action to halt the spread of the virus in his state, closing the border to Austria and sending vaccines to help the beleaguered Czech Republic. Mr. Söder is also the head of the Bavaria-only Christian Social Union, which forms a conservative bloc with the Christian Democrats in Parliament.

“Today is not a good day for Armin Laschet,” Marcel Dirsus, a fellow at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University, wrote on Twitter. “These are the first important elections since he became C.D.U. leader and the results are disastrous.”

Mr. Laschet has said conservatives will decide in the coming months whether the head of the Christian Democratic Union or the head of the Christian Social Union will run in September as the conservative bloc’s candidate for chancellor. But the Christian Democrats’ poor showing in Sunday’s elections could accelerate that decision.

Whoever is selected will face the Greens’ candidate, who has yet to be named, and Germany’s finance minister, Olaf Scholz, who is running for the Social Democrats.

Support for the Greens across Germany has nearly doubled since the election in 2017, making it the second strongest party six months ahead of the national election, after the conservatives and ahead of the Social Democrats.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Germany Launches Election Year With Losses for Merkel’s Party in Two States
Germany Launches Election Year With Losses for Merkel’s Party in Two States
Newsrust - US Top News
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