The results of tonight’s regional polls represent a challenging start to this election year for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU). Noise and nervousness could increase over the coming days and weeks, as the Christian alliance (CDU/CSU) will try to draw conclusions, not least for the nomination of the chancellor candidate for September’s Bundestag elections. At the same time, it would probably be a stretch for the CDU to put all the blame at its new leader’s door. For now, Armin Laschet’s candidature for the Merkel succession remains the base case scenario.
In the Baden-Wuerttemberg elections, the Greens defended their position as strongest party. As their junior partner in government, the CDU recorded its historically worst result in its former stronghold. Except for the center-right Liberals (FDP), all other parties also lost support, including the Social Democrats (SPD), which ended up at around 10%. Germany’s only Green minister-president can now decide whether to keep governing with the CDU or to switch to an entirely new combination, a Greens-led government with SPD and FDP as junior partners.
In Rhineland-Palatinate, the SPD remains the strongest force and seems on track for the desired continuation of the “traffic lights” coalition with the Greens and the FDP. The CDU lost some five percentage points, falling to its worst result ever in the state, at around 26%. At almost 35%, the local SPD result seems like a distant dream to the party in Berlin; in nation-wide politics, the SPD is polling some 20 percentage points lower. However, leading social democrats took heart in the news that in two regional states, governments could now be formed without the CDU.
For new CDU leader Armin Laschet, these results are far from an ideal start to CDU/CSU’s conversations about the Merkel succession. Laschet is neither a member of Merkel’s government in Berlin nor in any way implicated by the mask procurement scandals that have surrounded individual CDU/CSU Bundestag MPs over recent days. Instead, the vaccine disaster has been the main turning point for public opinion over recent weeks. Voters’ patience is running low, and as the leading force in the federal government, the CDU is feeling the pain.
Still, tonight’s results serve as a reminder to CDU/CSU that defending the chancellery will not be a smooth ride. That realization could strengthen the hand of Bavarian minister-president and CSU leader Markus Soeder vis-à-vis Laschet. After all, Soeder remains the most popular contender in the CDU/CSU camp – even if, as leader of the much larger CDU, Laschet has the pole position. In surveys in both regional states going to the polls today, around two thirds of voters expressed the view that Laschet’s election as CDU leader had not changed the party’s fortunes – an assessment that could be worse, but which represents no endorsement as a promising vote winner either.
Amid the ongoing vaccine fiasco, however, the September elections might pose a bigger-than-expected challenge for any CDU/CSU candidate. And beyond the Bundestag polls, several coalition options will be on the table, as was demonstrated again by tonight’s results. To sound out the perspectives for potential partnerships, it will be crucial to look inside the parties over the coming months. German politics clearly remain in flux.