Germany's 2021 election season opened on Sunday with black eyes for Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in two regional polls.
More than seven million voters were called to elect state parliaments in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland Palatinate and, in both cases, projections suggested historic disasters for the centre-right CDU.
In Baden-Württemberg, once a CDU heartland, the ruling Green Party retained its lead as most popular party, with nearly 31 per cent, while the CDU, its outgoing junior coalition partner, slid four points to just 23 per cent.
Neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate saw the ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD) retain its lead with nearly 35 per cent while the CDU slid almost six points to 36 per cent.
The CDU collapse in the two southwestern states were seen by many on Sunday as a vote of no confidence in the party's performance in recent months, and could bode ill for its hopes of securing a fifth term in office next September in Berlin – without Merkel at the helm.
The last weeks have seen a cascade of bad news for the CDU: chaotic pandemic management, slow vaccination rollout and, in recent days, an unfolding graft scandal involving Berlin MPs.
Three parliamentarians from its centre-right bloc are under investigation for allegedly accepting kick-backs from companies in exchange for securing them public contracts for protective masks.
Three other MPs are being investigated for allegedly accepting money to push interests of Azerbaijan in Germany and the Council of Europe, Europe's largest human rights body.
Just how relevant regional polls are for predicting federal political trends usually depend on how well a party fares, and Sunday was no exception.
The winning Greens and Social Democratic Party (SPD) called it a hopeful start to a busy election year – and a reminder of Germany's centre-left political potential.
The Green Party co-leader in Berlin, Annalena Baerbock, said the two results were "tailwind for the federal election".
The SPD's popular state leader in Rhineland-Palatinate, Malu Dreyer, said she was confident her party was "well organised" for the upcoming poll in September.
Olaf Scholz, SPD lead candidate in September's campaign, agreed: "What we see today is that it is possible to build a government without the CDU and that is what we are pushing for."
Lars Klingbeil, SPD general secretary in Berlin, put it succinctly: "The election race is open."
The results have set alarm bells ringing in the CDU. Rhineland-Palatinate was once the homeland of former chancellor Helmut Kohl, but is now ruled by a three-way coalition of SPD, Greens and liberal Free Democrats – likely to return for another term. In Baden-Württemberg, the CDU ruled almost continuously after the war until 2011's "Green earthquake".
After one term back in office, the weakened CDU could yet be ousted in the state capital, Stuttgart, in favour of a three-way coalition of Greens, SPD the FDP.
Bundestag president Wolfgang-Schäuble, a CDU grey eminence and since 1972 a federal MP from Baden-Württemberg, said the election results reflected voter insecurity in the pandemic and attraction to popular incumbent leaders in both states.
Pressed on the CDU’s struggle with sleaze, Dr Schäuble conceded: “What’s clear is this was not a pleasant evening for the CDU.”
Polling agencies warned on Sunday evening that their exit polls could differ from final, official results given that every second voter in both states used a postal vote. Given many voters are likely to have posted their votes before CDU graft revelations, CDU leaders in Berlin know the consequences may be even more grave than Sunday’s historic disaster.
“This is a sad result for the CDU in former political heartlands,” said Norbert Röttgen, foreign policy spokesman for the CDU.
Beyond the CDU drubbing, Sunday’s result had two clear trends. The first was a bounce in support for the FDP in both states, after years in the political wilderness. Secondly, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) lost support in both states, as voters abandoned the party amid internal fighting and surveillance by domestic intelligence.