German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives suffered heavy losses in two key regional elections Sunday, as voters punished the party for a series of pandemic setbacks and a face-mask procurement scandal.
Merkel's centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was headed for its worst-ever score in the southwestern states of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, according to estimates from public broadcasters ARD and ZDF.
Both votes were viewed as a snapshot of the national mood ahead of a general election on September 26 -- when Merkel's successor will be chosen.
"This is a dark hour for the CDU," said Die Welt daily, while Die Zeit newspaper called it "a disaster".
The drubbing comes amid criticism of Germany's slow vaccinations, a delayed start to free rapid testing and a resurgence in infections despite months of shutdowns.
Merkel's CDU and its Bavarian CSU sister party, German's largest ruling bloc, were also roiled in recent days by revelations of lawmakers apparently profiting from face-mask deals, prompting three MPs to resign in quick succession.
CDU secretary-general Paul Ziemiak said the graft accusations had hurt the party, and vowed the CDU would show "zero tolerance" towards politicians seeking to cash in on the health crisis.
Because of the pandemic, many votes were sent by postal ballot and observers cautioned that final results could still change.
- 'Super start' -
In wealthy Baden-Wuerttemberg, the CDU slumped to around 24 percent, compared with 27 percent five years ago, latest estimates showed at 2130 GMT.
The left-leaning, ecologist Green party triumphed again, garnering more than 32.7 percent of votes to achieve its best-ever result in any regional election.
Baden-Wuerttemberg is Germany's only region with a Green premier, Winfried Kretschmann, who after more than 10 years in office has forged a reputation as a centrist in a state that is also home to car giants Daimler and Porsche.
Kretschmann could opt to maintain his current coalition government with the CDU, or build a new one with the centre-left SPD and the pro-business FDP.
Whichever option he chooses will be closely watched as it could serve as a blueprint for the first federal government of the post-Merkel era.
Greens co-leader Robert Habeck hailed a "super start to a super election year".
The Greens' popularity has surged nationwide in recent years on growing concern about climate change, and they could emerge as kingmakers in September's elections.
- 'Traffic light' -
In neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate, the CDU placed second with some 27 percent of votes, down from almost 32 percent in the previous regional election.
The centre-left SPD remained the largest party at around 36 percent, roughly unchanged from 2016.
The result paves the way for popular SPD state premier Malu Dreyer to continue governing with the liberal FDP and the Greens in what is known as a "traffic light" constellation after the parties' colours.
German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, the SPD's candidate to replace Merkel, said Sunday's results strengthened his bid to become chancellor.
"It is possible to form a government in Germany without the CDU/CSU," he said.
In both states, the far-right AfD performed worse than in 2016, but still took around 10-11 percent of votes.
- Merkel legacy -
Although Merkel's CDU/CSU governs in a federal coalition with the SPD as junior partner, much of the blame for the virus setbacks has fallen on the conservatives, particularly CDU Health Minister Jens Spahn.
Support for the CDU/CSU alliance has fallen to a one-year low at around 30 percent, recent surveys show.
Sunday's rout is likely to pile pressure on new CDU chief Armin Laschet, who hopes to be nominated as chancellor candidate but lacks broad support.
Opinion polls suggest Germans would prefer to see Bavarian premier and CSU leader Markus Soeder run for the top job, but he has yet to throw his hat in the ring.
Observers say the pandemic fallout could not only risk the CDU/CSU's chances of staying in government after September's vote, it could also tarnish Merkel's legacy as she prepares to bow out after 16 years.