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STUTTGART, Germany — It’s being called Germany’s “super election year,” but the start is not looking so super for Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
Scandals over two MPs cashing in on the coronavirus by brokering face mask deals and frustration over the slow pace of vaccinations have hit the party’s popularity ahead of two regional elections on Sunday.
The votes in the western states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate are the first of seven elections in Germany this year, culminating in a general election in September that will choose Merkel’s successor.
The mask scandals involve one MP from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and another from its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). But it’s the CDU that’s on the ballot in Sunday’s elections, meaning the party’s new chief Armin Laschet will take the hit if it performs badly. That, in turn, could dent Laschet’s chances of becoming the CDU/CSU candidate for chancellor — a title that will put the holder in pole position to succeed Merkel.
In Baden-Württemberg — a wealthy southwestern state that is home to big carmakers such as Daimler-Benz and Porsche, and was once a conservative bastion — the CDU’s hopes of recapturing first place from the Greens have evaporated.
Although the state’s Green premier Winfried Kretschmann is something of an outlier within his own party, his likely victory will give the Greens a boost as they seek to cement second place in national polls and join a governing coalition after the general election.
Kretschmann came to power in 2011, becoming the first Green premier of a German state and ending decades of CDU rule in Baden-Württemberg. He currently heads a coalition with the CDU, which serves as his junior partner.
Kretschmann, who is 72, has built a reputation of being more socially and fiscally conservative than many in his party, and as a leader who carefully considers industry interests when trying to strike a balance between climate protection and economic prosperity.
The CDU’s candidate, Susanne Eisenmann, who has served as state education minister under Kretschmann since 2016, is challenging him for the top job. She has tried to make the case that even if Kretschmann is a moderate, his party has been hijacked by more radical Greens.
During a televised debate earlier this month, Eisenmann accused the state premier of supporting a party manifesto that wants to force almost everyone to switch from cars to cycling or walking — even grandmothers.
“But it doesn’t say that a granny has to walk 20 kilometers,” Kretschmann responded with a mischievous grin in a debate that suggested the two coalition partners are not so far apart on many issues.
Despite nearly a decade in power, Kretschmann remains personally popular in the state.
“He comes across as likable and humane,” Leonie Müller, a student at Stuttgart Media University, said in the city center last week. Although the state government could take more decisive action on environmental protection, “a little progress is better than nothing,” she argued.
“You have to take the conservative people in the state by the hand and lead them gently into the new age,” Müller said.
Still, Kretschmann’s policies go too far for some.
“You can’t just destroy our automobile industry,” said Sibylle Kies, a retiree sitting on a park bench opposite Stuttgart’s New Palace, which once served as a royal residence and now houses Baden-Württemberg’s economy ministry. Kies said the Greens’ policy of making cars less attractive, especially for city dwellers, had led to “insolent cyclists” taking over the city.
“Kretschmann will probably win the election as he’s very popular, but he won’t serve the full term,” she said, citing the premier’s recent revelation that his wife is suffering from breast cancer as a reason for him to retire early.
POLITICO’s Poll of Polls gives the Greens 33 percent of the vote in Baden-Württemberg, 8 points ahead of the second-placed CDU. The two parties were neck and neck last September but the Greens pulled ahead, and have considerably widened their lead in recent weeks.
The CDU has better chances of finishing first in the other regional election taking place on Sunday, in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate — although it is once again up against a popular state premier in Malu Dreyer of the center-left Social Democrats.
Polling shows the SPD with 31 percent support in Rhineland-Palatinate, just a point ahead of the CDU.
Rhineland-Palatinate is much smaller than Baden-Württemberg, but winning there would have great symbolic value for the CDU. It was the home state of Helmut Kohl, the long-serving CDU chancellor who oversaw German unification.
Earlier this year, the CDU enjoyed a narrow lead over the SPD in the state. But the roles have reversed in recent weeks and the conservative camp faces an uphill struggle due to the mask scandal and general dissatisfaction with the coronavirus crisis.
“This is not exactly what a tailwind looks like, this is not good,” admitted local CDU leader Christian Baldauf on Monday, referring to the MPs’ scandal. “But I assume that the [voters] are very well able to distinguish that we are talking about black sheep here.”
Although the CDU governs with the SPD at the national level, it is the conservatives who are taking most of the heat for coronavirus frustration, due to the mask affair and the fact that CDU politicians have prominent roles in handling the crisis.
National CDU boss Laschet appears to be hoping voters will focus on bread-and-butter issues closer to home rather than the scandals in Berlin.
“We don’t yet know how [the elections] will turn out; they will also be about regional issues, where voters may differentiate,” he said. Laschet declared that he would not let the modernization of the CDU “be ruined by the actions of individual members of parliament who have nothing else on their minds but earning money.”
It’s not just the modernization of Germany’s long-governing party that’s at stake. There’s also Laschet’s chances of securing the CDU/CSU nomination to run for chancellor.
Laschet’s main rival is Markus Söder, the Bavarian state premier and leader of the CSU, even though he has avoided saying openly that he wants to run.
Ironically, the pandemic may help the CDU and Laschet in one way, even as it threatens their political fortunes in others.
Due to the virus, many voters chose to cast their ballots by mail — before the latest scandals erupted.
On Monday, German media reported that as many as 1 in 3 of those eligible to vote in Baden-Württemberg had already cast their ballots. In Rhineland-Palatinate, the figure was even higher, at almost 37 percent.