In the first German election since Europe’s debt crisis erupted four years ago, voters are likely to give Angela Merkel a third term on Sunday, but may force her into a coalition with her leftist rivals and catapult a new anti-euro party into parliament.
The vote is being closely watched by Berlin’s European partners, with some hoping Chancellor Merkel will soften her approach towards struggling euro states like Greece if she is pushed into a ‘grand coalition’ with the Social Democrats (SPD).
But major policy shifts seem unlikely because the centre-left SPD, whose campaign stalled after a gaffe-prone start by its lead candidate Peer Steinbrueck, agrees with the thrust of Merkel’s approach even as it accuses her of weak leadership.
Voting is due to begin at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and the first exit polls will be published at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT). Some 62 million Germans are eligible to vote. Roughly a third described them as undecided in the run-up to the election, adding to the uncertainty.
The most recent opinion polls show support for Merkel’s conservative bloc – her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) – around 39 percent, some 13 points ahead of the SPD, the second-biggest party.
That virtually guarantees that Merkel, whose staunch defense of German interests during the crisis has sent her approval ratings soaring over 60 percent, will stay on as chancellor.
In power since 2005, the 59-year-old Protestant pastor’s daughter from East Germany has presided over a robust economy and booming labor market.
Her modest “step by step” leadership style is criticized abroad but applauded by many at home, where she was cheered as “Mutti”, or Mum, on the campaign trail.
What remains unclear is whether Merkel will be able to continue atop the centre-right government she has led for the past four years. Her current partner, the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), has seen its support slide from a record 14.6 percent in the 2009 vote to just 5 percent in recent polls.
Unless they perform better on election day, Merkel will probably be forced to court the rival SPD, with whom she governed in a right-left coalition between 2005 and 2009.
Voters abandoned the SPD after that experiment, and there is deep resistance within the party to working with Merkel again.
Should the SPD refuse altogether, she could turn to the environmentalist Greens. A more likely scenario is that the SPD swallows its pride and agrees to talks, while demanding a high price in return for entering government with Merkel.
The party could come away with top cabinet posts such as the finance ministry and force the chancellor to accept key parts of its platform, like a minimum wage and tax hikes on the wealthy.
“They will be the most difficult coalition negotiations ever,” predicted Frank Decker, a political scientist at Bonn University.