Two German states are set to vote on Sunday in regional elections seen as a bellwether for September’s national poll as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) continue to reel from a mask procurement scandal that could prove the party’s undoing.
Voters go to the polls in the south-western states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, with the vote in Baden-Württemberg seen as a stress test for CDU party leader Armin Laschet and his bid to succeed Merkel as chancellor.
Laschet took pole position in the race to succeed the outgoing Merkel as chancellor when he won the party leadership in January. However, Laschet would first have to be named joint chancellor candidate for the CDU and Bavarian sister party Christian Social Union, or CSU.
Waiting to challenge him for the role is the heavyweight CSU leader Markus Söder. Second only to Merkel in nationwide approval ratings, the Bavarian state premier is positioning himself as a safe pair of hands to lead the bloc into its first election in without her since 2005.
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As CDU leader, Laschet has the final say over the chancellor candidate. However, recent events may yet prove a stumbling block to his prospects, with the CDU embroiled in a damaging mask procurement scandal that has resulted in the resignation of two CDU lawmakers alleged to have enriched themselves during the pandemic.
One of the lawmakers, Nikolas Löbel, is from Baden-Württemberg, where the CDU are now trailing the Greens in polls. In Rhineland-Palatinate, the party is neck-and-neck with the Social Democrats.
Convincing defeats in either poll could give Söder the opportunity to launch his bid to become the bloc’s chancellor candidate ahead of the September election campaign.
Whoever leads the CDU/CSU into the election is facing increasingly strong headwinds. Pandemic fatigue and growing restlessness over lasting lockdowns and a sluggish vaccination campaign is beginning to be reflected in nationwide opinion polls.
Incumbent bonus could decide the race
Beyond the wider implications for Merkel’s successor, Sunday’s regional elections are not expected to deliver any major upsets, with the incumbent state premiers widely expected to hold on to power.
For the past ten years, Baden-Württemberg has been the only German state ruled by a Green. A recent INSA poll has state premier Winfried Kretschmann’s party on 33%, ahead of their closest rivals, the CDU, on 22%. The two parties have governed the state in coalition since 2016.
Kretschmann, 73, has been credited with the Greens success in the conservative, affluent state home to numerous carmakers, with his centrist, business-friendly approach also appealing to many CDU voters.
“If the Greens triumph [in Baden Württemberg], the victory will not have been won by the party, but by Kretschmann himself,” Oskar Niedermayer, a political scientist at Freie Universität Berlin, told EURACTIV Germany.
A tighter race is predicted in Rhineland-Palatinate, where INSA polls have state premier Malu Dreyer’s SPD in a dead heat with the CDU on 30%.
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Laboratory for coalitions
State politics in Germany is traditionally a laboratory for potential coalitions at the national level, said Uwe Jun, a political scientist and professor at the University of Trier in Rhineland-Palatinate.
Therefore, the subsequent coalition negotiations on the regional level will send key signals for the potential make-up of Germany’s next government after September’s poll.
In both states, so-called “traffic light” coalitions (named after the parties’ colours) could be possible between the Greens, SPD and FDP, each with a different weighting.
Such a coalition is currently in power in Rhineland-Palatinate, which all parties want to continue.
So far, the only word from Baden-Württemberg is that the CDU (currently the junior partner) wants to continue the coalition with the Greens. On the Green side, the tone is colder, with state party leader Sandra Detzer recently stressing that there would be “no automatic continuation of this old coalition.”
All eyes will be on this constellation in particular, as the buoyant Greens could emerge in September as the CDU/CSU’s strongest potential coalition partner on the national level.
Observers agree that whatever the outcome of Sunday’s polls, the CDU/CSU is likely to find itself under pressure to put forward either Laschet or Söder as chancellor candidate as quickly as possible in order to signal resolve.
[Edited by Josie Le Blond]