Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union may have come out on top in the Hesse state election on Sunday but the result — the party's lowest in over 50 years — is a major electoral blow that could precipitate the German Chancellor's departure.
CDU and SPD in freefall
Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) sustained heavy losses in the central state of Hesse, slumping to 28% — a 52-years-low and 10 percentage points lower than at the last state election in 2013.
The CDU's coalition partners in Berlin, the Social Democrats (SPD), were also punished at the regional ballot, coming equal-second with the Greens, at 19.8%.
These poor results come on the heel of another weak showing in Bavaria in mid-October where the centre-right CSU plummeted in the polls and lost its parliament majority. The SPD meanwhile, slipped to fifth place behind the euroskeptic, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
"With voters rejecting both main parties, and future regional elections scheduled next year, voters are clearly sending a message about the unpopularity of the government," Ross Campbell, senior lecturer in Political Science at the West Scotland University, told Euronews.
Smaller parties make gains
The AfD secured 12% of the vote in Hesse and is now represented in every state parliaments as well as in the Bundestag.
The result in Hesse "is therefore the final piece of evidence that the AfD has established itself within the German party system," Carsten Nickel, a German politics expert at political risks consultancy Teneo Intelligence, wrote in a note on Sunday.
"Talk of a populist "wave" does not nearly reflect the level of realignment that is currently underway in German politics," he added.
The Greens have also had strong showings. Just like in Bavaria a fortnight ago, the party finished second in the polls in Hesse with 19.8% of the vote — although it is tied with the SPD.
"The key thing here is that voters are far more choosy than in the past. They have options and are increasingly willing to move from party-to-party," Campbell said.
"Looks like the CDU lost 84,000 voters to the AfD, but 94,000 to the Greens. The challenge, in other words, is on the right and left. And if the CDU try to ape the AfD, they may haemorrhage more votes to the Greens," he added.
What it means for Merkel?
The repeated electoral beatings have hurt Merkel and severely damaged the ruling coalition as the SPD blames the chancellor's policies for its slump in the ballot box. But discontent is also growing and becoming more vocal within the CDU ranks.
Putting the blame squarely on Merkel is short-sighted, according to Nickel, and "reveals the degree of disorientation in both declining parties."
Still, on Monday, Merkel announced that she would not seek reelection past 2021, when her current term expires.
She also said that she would not seek to be reelected as CDU leader — a post she's held since 2000 — at the party congress in December and that she would not handpick her successor as party leader.
Potential successors include Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, General Secretary of the CDU; Jens Spahn, Health Minister; Armin Laschet, Prime Minister of North-Rhine-Westphalia; Julia Klöckner, Agriculture Minister; Daniel Günther, Prime Minister of Schleswig-Holstein and Friedrich Merz, former Merkel rival, currently inactive.
But despite her assurance that she would step down in 2021, some doubt she could even make it to the end of her term.
"There is no obvious challenger," Campbell said, "but Merkel may have to leave sooner than she expected and on terms chosen by her party, not her.
"This would have been unthinkable in 2013, when she almost won an outright majority in the Federal elections," he added.
What it means for Europe?
Continued uncertainty in Germany could impact the European Union. The country, seen as a motor for European integration and reforms, has been embroiled in domestic squabbles since the September 2017 country-wide elections and the subsequent, tumultuous, four-months coalition negotiations.
That means Germany has lost some of its authority on the European stage just when the bloc faces some tough challenges including Brexit negotiations, an increasingly assertive Russia and a more protectionist United States.
Yet, that could also be her saving grace.
"This may be one reason why Merkel sticks around a bit longer," Campbell said.
"With unresolved issues in the Eurozone, budget issues with Italy and the potential for a bumpy Brexit, the EU will be looking to Merkel and Macron for leadership," he explained.