Angela Merkel's centre-right party was heading for clear defeats at the hands of popular left-leaning governors in two German states on Sunday, according to projections.
Projections for ARD and ZDF television, based on exit polls and a partial count of vote, indicated that the parties of the popular governors’ in two south-western states would finish first.
The Greens were leading in Baden-Wuerttemberg and the centre left Social Democrats were ahead in Rhineland-Palatinate.
The two landers are the first of six that will elect their regional legislature this year ahead of federal elections to select parliament, and thus a new chancellor in September.
Sunday's elections were seen as key to determine what voters think of the government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout.
For Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the polls are also a barometer on what voters think of the new leadership as the Chancellor prepares to step down after 16 years at the helm of the county.
In total, more than 10 million people — 7.7 million in Baden-Wuerttemberg and 3.1 million in Rhineland-Palatinate — were invited to cast their ballot.
Polls have pointed to weak results for the CDU.
Amid discontent over a sluggish start to Germany’s vaccination drive, and with coronavirus restrictions easing only gradually, Merkel’s Union bloc has been hit over the past two weeks by allegations that two lawmakers profited from deals to procure masks early in the coronavirus pandemic.
The CDU already faced a challenging task against two popular state governors from rival parties.
In Baden-Wuerttemberg, the Green party, currently in a coalition with the CDU, was expected to widen its lead over Merkel's party. The lander's Green governor, Winfried Kretschmann, has been in his position for 10 years and is popular with centrist voters.
The Green party has been making strong gains in recent elections and currently polls third nationally ahead of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), which is the junior partner in the federal coalition. A strong show of support for the environmentalist party would be a hopeful signal for the national election campaign which could see it make its first bid for the chancellery in September.
In Rhineland-Palatinate, the SPD, whose national ratings have been fading, was expected to keep a narrow lead of the back of governor Malu Dreyer's popularity.
The new leader of the CDU, Armin Laschet, has sought any fallout in case support for his party wanes significantly in both states, saying that regional elections "always have their very own character" and the outcome won't affect the stability of his leadership.
However, bad results may raise questions over his hopes of running to succeed Merkel in September.
Laschet says that he and Markus Soeder, the CSU leader and Bavarian governor who is the other serious contender to run for chancellor, will decide on the centre-right candidate to succeed Merkel in April or May.
The CDU still leads in the polls nationally with support at 31 per cent, according to pollster Emnid. This is a 12 percentage point lead over its nearest rival, the Green party.
The government has been increasingly criticised for its handling of the pandemic. A poll by YouGov released on Friday found that only 35 per cent of the population rates the government's strategy as good, down from 63 per cent in September 2020.