German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party was in crisis mode Monday after suffering heavy losses in two regional polls, seen as a rebuke of its pandemic management six months before a general election.
Merkel's centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) scored its worst-ever results in elections in the southwestern states of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, according to preliminary results published by the states.
Sunday's rout raised questions about the conservatives' chances in the September 26 general election, when Germans will choose a successor to outgoing leader Merkel.
"It can't go on like this," said Der Spiegel weekly, saying Merkel's house was "on fire".
The rout was blamed on growing public anger over a sluggish vaccine rollout, a delayed start to mass rapid testing and higher infection numbers despite months of shutdowns.
In the days leading up to the regional votes, Merkel's CDU and its CSU Bavarian sister party were also rocked by revelations of lawmakers apparently profiting from deals to procure face masks in the early days of the pandemic.
Three conservative MPs have since resigned, and the CDU/CSU alliance has forced all its lawmakers to declare any financial gain from the coronavirus crisis, vowing "zero tolerance".
CSU leader and Bavarian premier Markus Soeder on Monday called the result a "wake-up call" for the conservative alliance, blaming mistakes made in the government's pandemic management.
The party must prove it can "govern well and reliably" in the run-up to the general election and offer a vision for the future, he said.
The CDU-CSU alliance "must give answers to these questions, and it must give them decisively," he added.
If the conservatives want to stay in power when Merkel bows out after 16 years, they urgently need to "win back trust", CSU secretary general Markus Blume said.
The first order of business should be to decide the alliance's candidate for chancellor, media outlet Spiegel said.
New CDU chief Armin Laschet is the obvious choice but he lacks broad support.
Laschet needs to "free himself from Merkel's shadow" and "say what the party stands for", Andreas Roedder, a historian at Mainz university and a CDU member, told the Bild daily.
Opinion polls suggest Germans would prefer to see Soeder in the top job, but he has yet to declare a willingness to run.
If Soeder genuinely has chancellor ambitions, "he must strike now", said Handelsblatt financial daily.
Merkel's CDU garnered just 24 percent of the vote in the wealthy state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, down from 27 percent five years ago, preliminary results showed.
The state is an outlier in Germany because it has been run by a premier from the Green party for over a decade, Winfried Kretschmann.
Kretschmann, 72, led the centre-left ecologists to a record result of more than 32 percent.
Support for the Greens has risen in recent years on growing concern about climate change, and they could emerge as kingmakers in September's election.
Green party co-leader Robert Habeck on Monday welcomed the result as "a great sign that people are willing to give us responsibility and mandates, and to give us their trust" in times of crisis.
'All in all, we can say that the momentum of the Greens is continuing and we have made a strong start in this election year,' he said.
In neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate, popular state premier Malu Dreyer powered the SPD to another victory with a score of around 36 percent.
The CDU slumped to around 28 percent, down from almost 32 percent in 2016.
The conservatives' woes come as Germany braces for a third Covid-19 wave, even while proceeding with a gradual reopening of schools and non-essential shops.
Latest forecasts by the country's Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases predict that by mid-April, new infections could surpass the peak seen in December, when some 30,000 cases were reported a day.
Merkel and the premiers of Germany's 16 federal states will discuss the next steps in the pandemic fight on March 22.