FILE - In this Tuesday Aug. 18, 2020 file photo, German chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and her successor as chairman of the German Christian Democratic Union, CDU, Armin Laschet, right, point during a meeting in Duesseldorf, Germany. Elections in two German states on Sunday pose a difficult test for Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, six months before a national vote that will determine who succeeds the country's longtime leader. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)
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BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right party suffered clear defeats in two German state elections on Sunday at the hands of popular governors from parties further to the left, according to projections. The setback comes six months before a national vote that will determine who succeeds the country’s longtime leader.

Sunday’s votes for new state legislatures in the southwestern states of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate kicked off an electoral marathon which features another four state ballots and the Sept. 26 national election.

Amid discontent over a sluggish start to Germany’s vaccination drive, with most coronavirus restrictions still in place and infections rising again, Merkel’s Union bloc has been hit over the past two weeks by allegations that two lawmakers profited from deals to procure masks early in the coronavirus pandemic.

Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union already faced a challenging task against well-liked governors. Projections for ARD and ZDF public television, based on exit polls and a partial count of votes, showed those governors’ parties -- the environmentalist Greens in Baden-Wuerttemberg and the center-left Social Democrats in Rhineland-Palatinate -- finishing first, some 7 to 9 percentage points ahead of the CDU. The CDU's projected showings of about 23% and 27%, respectively, were the party's worst since World War II in both states.

“To say it very clearly, this isn't a good election evening for the CDU,” said the party's general secretary, Paul Ziemiak. “We would have liked different, better results.”

Familiar, popular and reassuring incumbents appeared to have been a decisive factor in the elections as the pandemic enters its second year. That's one advantage the CDU can't count on in September. Merkel isn’t seeking a fifth term after nearly 16 years in power.

In Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany's only Green party governor, Winfried Kretschmann, has become popular with centrist voters in 10 years running a region that is home to automakers Daimler and Porsche. The region was dominated by the CDU until Kretschmann won power shortly after Japan's 2011 Fukushima reactor disaster, which accelerated the end of nuclear power in Germany.

Kretschmann, 72, a fatherly figure with a conservative image, featured on Green election posters with the slogan “You know me.” Merkel once used that slogan in a pre-election debate to underline her own largely ideology-free appeal.

The Greens' success bolstered their confidence for the national election campaign, in which the traditionally left-leaning party is expected to make its first bid for the chancellery.

Their national co-leader, Robert Habeck, described Sunday’s votes as “a super start to the super election year, and we will hopefully be able to take the tailwind from Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate at full sail."

Kretschmann has run Baden-Wuerttemberg since 2016 with the CDU as his junior partner, but may now be able to choose new allies.

The center-left Social Democrats have led Rhineland-Palatinate for 30 years — currently under governor Malu Dreyer, whose personal popularity kept her party’s support above its dismal national ratings. The Greens are a junior partner in her governing coalition, which also includes the pro-business Free Democrats, and looked to have improved somewhat on their showing five years ago.

The far-right Alternative for Germany party appeared to have lost some support in both states but still polled between 9% and 11%.

It was an awkward moment for new CDU leader Armin Laschet to face his first major test since being elected in January, as the center-right considers who should run to replace Merkel as chancellor.

Many people had already voted by mail, so it’s unclear how far the scandal over lawmakers in the CDU and its Bavaria-only sister party, the Christian Social Union, allegedly enriching themselves through mask deals impacted Sunday’s vote. Nikolas Loebel, a CDU lawmaker from Baden-Wuerttemberg, and the CSU’s Georg Nuesslein have both quit their parties and say they won’t run for parliament again.

The Union bloc of CDU and CSU benefited from Merkel’s perceived good management of the pandemic last year. It still leads national polls by a distance from the Greens and Social Democrats — the latter the junior partner in Merkel's coalition government — but this year has started badly. Germany’s vaccination campaign has been significantly slower than those of Israel, Britain and the U.S.

Laschet says that he and Markus Soeder, the CSU leader and Bavarian governor who is the other serious contender to run for chancellor, will decide on the center-right candidate to succeed Merkel in April or May. Soeder's political standing has risen during the pandemic.

Political scientist Karl-Rudolf Korte told ZDF television that Sunday's results showed the pandemic rewarded “the known and not the unknown.”

“Laschet is unknown for many at the federal level,” he added, adding that the Union can't expect to simply “march through” to the chancellery without Merkel and needs to think about “how to develop a leadership narrative with charismatic people who pull the party with them.”

The Social Democrats' candidate for chancellor, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, said: “What we see today is that forming a government is possible without the CDU.”