German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives suffered heavy losses in two important regional elections on Sunday, as voters punished the party for a series of pandemic setbacks and a face-mask procurement scandal.
Mrs Merkel's centre-right Christian Democratic Union endured its worst ever results in the south-western states of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate.
Both votes were regarded as a snapshot of the national mood before a general election on September 26 – when Mrs Merkel's successor will be chosen.
Norbert Roettgen, a senior figure in the CDU, described the disastrous results as a "wake-up call".
Paul Ziemiak, the CDU's general secretary, said the results were not necessarily related to national issues, but conceded more must be done to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We know that the coronavirus pandemic and the crisis management is troubling people, and we all have to ask ourselves where can we be faster, where can we be more pragmatic and where can be better,” Mr Ziemiak told ARD television.
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.
Mrs Merkel's CDU and its Bavarian CSU sister party, German's largest ruling bloc, were also hit in recent days by revelations of politicians apparently profiting from face-mask deals, prompting three MPs to resign in quick succession.
Mr Ziemiak said the 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.
In wealthy Baden-Wuerttemberg, the CDU slumped to about 24 per cent, from 27 per cent five years ago, latest estimates showed.
The left-leaning, ecologist Green Party won more than 32.7 per cent of the vote 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.
Mr Kretschmann could opt to maintain his current coalition government with the CDU, or build a new one with the centre-left Social Democrats and the pro-business Free Democratic Party.
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.
In neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate, the CDU came second with some 27 per cent of the vote, down from almost 32 per cent in the previous regional election.
The centre-left SPD remained the largest party at around 36 per cent, roughly unchanged from 2016.
The result paves the way for popular SPD state premier Malu Dreyer to continue governing with the FDP and the Greens in what is known as a "traffic light" coalition, named after the parties' colours.
German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, the SPD's candidate to replace Ms 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 Alternative for Germany, or AfD, performed worse than in 2016, but still took around 10-11 per cent of the vote.
Although Mrs Merkel's CDU/CSU governs in a federal coalition with the SPD as a 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 about 30 per cent, 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 Ms Merkel's legacy as she prepares to bow out after 16 years.