Angela Merkel's conservatives were heaving a sigh of relief on Monday after a convincing win in the last regional vote before a general election that also exposed the weaknesses of the Green party, their main rival at the national level.
The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) under new party chief Armin Laschet won around 37 percent of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt on Sunday, partial results showed, well ahead of the second place far-right AfD party on around 21 percent.
The Greens, who had until recently been polling neck-and-neck with the CDU and its smaller Bavarian CSU sister party at the national level, scored a disappointing result of around six percent.
The outcome in the former East German state is a huge boost for conservative would-be chancellor Laschet ahead of Germany's general election on September 26 -- the first in 16 years not to feature Merkel.
"Laschet is still a long way from the chancellor's office," the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily said. But the poll result has brought him "much closer to it".
Berenberg Bank's chief economist Holger Schmieding noted that national polls in the last ten days have shown the CDU and CSU slightly ahead of the Greens again after falling behind earlier in the year.
"After the CDU did well in Saxony-Anhalt, this nascent reversal of fortunes in favour of the CDU will likely continue," he said.
- Pre-vote jitters -
Nominated as conservative chancellor candidate in April, Laschet inherited a series of problems including anger over the government's pandemic management and a corruption scandal involving shady coronavirus mask contracts.
At Germany's last regional elections in March -- in the states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Wuerttemberg -- the CDU suffered its worst ever results in both states.
Laschet himself has also suffered from weak popularity, following damaging infighting within the conservatives for the chancellor candidate nomination.
The disunity within the conservative ranks had contrasted starkly with the Greens, who in a show of harmony had nominated Annalena Baerbock as their chancellor candidate.
That had left Laschet trailing behind Baerbock in terms of popularity nationally.
But Spiegel Online said "the voters in Saxony-Anhalt have given Laschet an invaluable gift.
"After his lousy start as chancellor candidate, it was clear that he would not be a man drawing euphoric optimism for his campaign. Rather, the motto was to sit it out," it said.
"What he needs above all is calm, and now he has it."
Die Zeit newspaper also said Sunday's result augured well for Laschet in particular.
Saxony-Anhalt state premier Reiner Haseloff "is a man of the middle, a man of compromise... someone who keeps his cool in dicey moments," it said. "In other words, someone who is very similar" to Laschet.
Laschet "can therefore take his party's triumph in Saxony-Anhalt as a good omen," it said.
- 'Derailed' -
For the Greens, however, Die Zeit said Sunday's result "brought them back again to where they often land in eastern Germany: on the ground".
Baerbock's initial popularity after her nomination had fired up speculation that she could seize Merkel's job from the CDU, and polls ahead of Sunday's vote had predicted the party doubling its share.
But as it turned out, it only slightly improved its score, deepening the party's recent woes at the national level.
Baerbock last month admitted she had failed to declare around 25,000 euros in supplementary income to parliament, something that her critics have leapt on as a sign of hypocrisy from a party championing more transparency in politics.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung this week also pointed out that her CV detailed several positions that Baerbock was no longer holding, prompting her to adapt the list.
Friedrich Merz, a prominent CDU member, said simply that the "Baerbock train has derailed".
The Tagesspiegel daily also forecasted a rocky road ahead for the Greens.
Sunday's showing "could be a quiet harbinger that despite all the euphoria surrounding a Green chancellor candidate, the coming weeks could be difficult".