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© Reuters. CDU’s Leader Armin Laschet attends a party leadership meeting via video conference

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BERLIN (Reuters) – German voters go to the polls on Sunday in regional elections in two western states that pose an early test of the conservative Christian Democrats’ prospects of retaining power in a federal vote later this year.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, in power since 2005, is not seeking re-election in September and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is already missing the ‘Merkel bonus’ she has brought them with four consecutive national election victories.

The CDU goes into Sunday’s polling in the southwestern auto hub of Baden-Wuerttemberg and the neighbouring wine-growing region of Rhineland-Palatinate with its poll numbers sliding, exacerbated by a face mask procurement scandal.

In the once safe CDU region of Baden-Wuerttemberg the party risks being replaced as junior coalition partner to the Greens by the Social Democrats (SPD) and liberal Free Democrats.

In Rhineland-Palatinate, where such a ‘traffic light’ coalition of party colours already governs, the CDU was leading in opinion polls as recently as late February but has now slipped behind the left-leaning SPD.

CDU leaders fear that if a traffic light alliance ousts them from government in Baden-Wuerttemberg, then such a tie-up could gain credibility at September’s federal vote – and could leave the party in opposition at national level.

Its image has been tarnished by the face mask scandal, which has seen conservative lawmakers quit over allegations they received payments for arranging procurement deals.

Sunday’s elections will also have ramifications within the conservative bloc of the CDU and its Bavaria sister party, which together run Germany’s federal government in coalition with the SPD.

While new CDU leader Armin Laschet is in pole position in the race to succeed Merkel, defeat in Baden-Wuerttemberg could help his Bavarian rival Markus Soeder in his bid to become the conservative chancellor candidate in September.

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