BERLIN (Reuters) - An influential figure in Bavaria's Christian Social Union left the party on Sunday, becoming the latest politician to be caught up in a face mask procurement scandal that could leach support from Angela Merkel's conservative bloc as elections near.
Alfred Sauter, a member of the wealthy southeastern state's parliament, is being investigated by prosecutors over allegations he took bribes in return for helping arrange public mask procurement contracts during the coronavirus pandemic.
Sauter denies the allegations.
"We are at a fork in the road," Bavarian premier Markus Soeder, the leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU) and a front-runner to be the conservative candidate to replace Merkel as chancellor, told a news conference on Sunday. "Our party's credibility is at stake."
As well as being a member of the CSU's state parliamentary group, Sauter was a member of the party's board and chair of his constituency party. For a quarter of a century he has been a mover-and-shaker in the party - which has a decades-old alliance with Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) - and served for a period as Bavaria's justice minister.
He is at least the third conservative politician to have left their jobs in the scandal over mask procurement kickbacks.
His departure from all his roles was first reported as his own decision by the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper, though he later told the same paper that he had his posts taken from him.
"My exclusion from the group is a serious violation in the constitutional status of a legislator," he told the newspaper.
With a national election due in September, at which voters will choose a replacement for Merkel, who is not running for a historic fifth term, the affair comes at the worst possible time for the conservative bloc.
A Kantar poll on Sunday showed support for the CDU-CSU ticket at 27%, just five points ahead of the second-placed Greens. In May, when Merkel was winning plaudits for her management of the pandemic, support stood at 40%.
Soeder said the party's legislators would in future have to make a choice between political office and business, and those who refused to declare their interests in full would not be allowed to run for office.
"People must decide: is your focus the public office or private economic interests," he said.
(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Pravin Char)