Merkel’s party faces tough election-year test in state polls

BERLIN (AP) — Two German states choose new legislatures tomorrow, the first major political test of a year in which a national election will determine who succeeds Chancellor Angela Merkel. The weekend votes come at a challenging time for the longtime leader’s party.

They also are expected to highlight the increased popularity of the environmentalist Green party, which could hold the key to forming Germany’s next government and is expected to make its own first bid for the chancellery.

Amid discontent over a sluggish start to Germany’s vaccination drive, and as a long lockdown only gradually loosens, Merkel’s centre-right Union bloc faces blowback over allegations that two lawmakers profited from deals to procure masks early in the coronavirus pandemic.

That complicates an already demanding battle to dislodge two popular governors — among them Winfried Kretschmann, Germany’s only Green governor. He has firmly cemented his appeal to centrist voters over a decade leading Baden-Wuerttemberg, an economic powerhouse that is home to automakers Daimler and Porsche.

The votes should help determine who gains political momentum for the months ahead. And they come as the centre-right approaches a decision on a candidate to succeed Merkel when Germany elects a new parliament on September 26. It’s an unpromising moment for the new leader of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Armin Laschet, to face his first big political test. The centrist Laschet won the party leadership in January.

“The ratings for the CDU were going down anyway and now the so-called ‘mask affair’ is coming on top of that,” said political science professor at Berlin’s Free University Thorsten Faas. “The signs for the CDU and Armin Laschet aren’t good — very weak results should be expected for the party.”

Baden-Wuerttemberg in southwestern Germany, where some 7.7 million people are eligible to vote, was dominated by the CDU for decades until Kretschmann won power a decade ago. That stunning result for the Greens came as the Fukushima reactor disaster in Japan accelerated the end of nuclear power in Germany.

Kretschmann, now 72, a popular, fatherly and even conservative figure with a strong regional accent, has dug in since then. In the last election five years ago, the Greens overtook the CDU to become the strongest party in the state.

Polls suggest they can hope to widen their lead tomorrow. That could provide a bounce at the national level for the traditionally left-leaning party, which has become increasingly open to alliances with conservatives.