0143 GMT August 15, 2022
The votes for new regional parliaments in the states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Wuerttemberg are seen as a bellwether ahead of September 26's general election – which will be the first in more than 15 years not to feature Merkel, according to AFP.
Recent surveys have shown that support for Merkel's CDU/CSU alliance has fallen to a one-year low at around 30 percent as Germans sour on its coronavirus crisis management.
"Merkel's CDU is facing a disaster," the top-selling Bild tabloid said, calling the polls a "corona election".
Merkel's center-right CDU and its Bavarian CSU sister party have been roiled by damaging claims about MPs apparently profiting from face mask deals early on in the pandemic, forcing three lawmakers to step down in recent days.
Deepening the conservatives' woes is growing public anger about a sluggish and bureaucratic vaccination campaign, a delayed start to free rapid testing and stubbornly high infection rates despite months of shutdowns.
Germans could perhaps look past the "mask affair", Der Spiegel weekly wrote, "if citizens felt that the government was doing its job, protecting it from the virus and guiding it through the crisis. But it's not".
In Rhineland-Palatinate, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) have overtaken the CDU in opinion polls, paving the way for popular state premier Malu Dreyer to head another coalition government with the Greens and the pro-business FDP.
In Baden-Wuerttemberg, the only German state to have a premier from the Green party, the left-leaning ecologists have widened their lead on the CDU.
The Greens there currently govern together with the CDU, in what could serve as a blueprint for the first federal government of the post-Merkel era.
Opinion polls show the CDU headed for its worst-ever result in the affluent southwestern state.
Some German commentators have called the mask scandal the conservatives' "biggest crisis" since a slush-fund controversy in the 1990s ensnared former chancellor Helmut Kohl.