Berlin - Since Sunday's state elections in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg were held during the third wave of the corona pandemic, many voters in both states chose to vote by mail to avoid a trip to the polling station.

And because many cast their ballot weeks ago rather than in the week before the election, the CDU didn't suffer as bad as it could have - corruption scandals that forced the resignation of three CDU/CSU politicians this month reached a peak last week.

Nevertheless, the start to this super-election year is a major disaster for the CDU/CSU. 

In Rhineland-Palatinate, the CDU's share of the vote fell by 4.1 points to 27.7 per cent, making it all but a cinch that the incumbent head of the state, Malu Dreyer (SPD), will retain her post after her party won 35.6 per cent of the  votes.   

In Baden-Württemberg, the CDU result (24.1 per cent; a 2.9 percentage point drop) was even more dismal. With 32.6 per cent, the Greens gained 2.3 percentage points and its leadership in the state, including popular state premier Winfried Kretschmann, is stronger than ever. 

Kretschmann no longer needs the CDU to govern. Mathematically, he has a comfortable majority for a "traffic light" coalition with the centre-left SPD and business-friendly FDP (the FDP's symbolic colour is yellow, SPD's red and the Greens is ... green) and that would truly be a catastrophe for the CDU - especially since the southwestern state has always been a stronghold for them.

The losers

The FDP's gained 2.2 percentage points to 10.5 per cent in a strong showing that could even lead to a novel alliance of Greens and Liberals - the citrus coalition of green and yellow. On election day, Bild am Sonntag depicted a lime next to a lemon. It looked tempting, but maybe that was just because no one's had a cocktail in a bar for months.

Citrus or no citrus - the fact remains that the FDP are among Sunday's winners, at least in Baden-Württemberg. Expect there to be plenty of traffic light talk in the run up to the national elections on 26 September.

For the CDU, the losses could be a sign of worse to come - so it was almost a black Sunday for the new-ish party leader Armin Laschet. Though he wasn't on the ballot, he could be sucked into a downward spiral before he's had a chance to arrange his desk at CDU HQ in Berlin.

The poor election results in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate don't bode well for the battle for the chancellorship against Markus Söder, the powerful leader of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the CSU. But maybe he'll lose the desire to pilot a sinking ship on his own accord.

Laschet - according to current information - can't be blamed for the recent scandals in his party, but he did make one mistake on Sunday. He left it to General Secretary Paul Ziemiak to go on TV and explain the defeats. Leadership looks different.

Self-inflicted wounds

After Sunday, the grumbling in the CDU will grow louder. Last year's highs are long gone. Back then, Germany was faring well in the pandemic and the chancellor was being celebrated around the world as an effective crisis manager. The steep drop in popularity is self-inflicted.

The poor crisis management of the past months has been compounded by the "mask affair" where two CDU MPs made six-figure commissions on face mask deals - and the "Azerbaijan connection", where another CDU politician shamelessly lobbied for the country.

The latter scandal has been smouldering for some time, but the CDU preferred to sit it out. Only when the dodgy mask dealings of MPs Georg Nüßlein and Nikolas Löbel made it clear that looking the other way would probably not help, did the party half-heartedly begin to limit the damage. It will take more than that to keep the CDU/CSU in government at the national level. The super election year has only just begun.