Angela Merkel / CDU
Angela Merkel / CDU

MUNICH — (MunichNOW Politics) — Angela Merkel has remained one of the few constants in the volatile world of European politics in recent times. Mrs. Merkel, who has been German Chancellor for twelve years as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is seeking a fourth successive term when Germans take to the polls on September 24, just over three weeks from now.

In the four years since the last election, Mrs. Merkel has endured challenging times, including through the migrant crisis of 2015 and in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

Angela Merkel and her main opponent, Martin Schulz -- munichFOTO
Angela Merkel and her main opponent, Martin Schulz — munichFOTO

In recent months, however, Mrs. Merkel appears to have weathered the storm, while her main opponent, Social Democrat (SPD) leader Martin Schultz, has seen initial enthusiasm wane. These contrasting recent fortunes were clearly demonstrated in May, when the SPD suffered a hugely damaging defeat to the CDU in North Rhine-Westphalia’s state elections. Traditionally an SPD stronghold, the state is Germany’s most populous and its industrial heartland.

The latest poll, published in Wednesday’s Frankfurter Allgemeine, also makes favourable reading for Mrs. Merkel, suggesting the CDU has a 15-point lead over the SPD with 39.5 percent support. But to view this election as a straightforward battle between the CDU and SPD would be simplifying what is an increasingly complex political landscape in Germany.

The country’s proportional representation electoral system makes it almost impossible for a single party to form a government single handedly, meaning coalitions are the norm. In 2013, the CDU’s traditional partners, the Free Democrats (FDP) collapsed completely, leading to the resurrection of the “grand coalition” with the SPD, as had been the case in 2005.

While it is not beyond the realm of possibility for the coalition to remain intact, it could well turn out that one or more of the smaller parties will have a decisive say in how the government is formed. The most controversial of these parties is Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), who polled as high as 15 percent at the start of the year.

Frauke Petry of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) — wikicommons

The far-right party, shunned by both the CDU and SPD, have since seen their support drop as anti-EU populism, which peaked with Brexit, has slowly faded with defeats for Marine La Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. With polls suggesting their support is hovering around the 8 percent mark, they are likely to gain seats in parliament, but will not play a part in forming the government.

Christian Lindner, the leader of the liberal Free Democratic Party of Germany (FDP) -- wikicommons
Christian Lindner, the leader of the liberal Free Democratic Party of Germany (FDP) — wikicommons
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An attractive option for Mrs. Merkel would be re-teaming with the FDP, as she did in 2009. The centre-right party, now led by Christian Lindner, failed to hit the 5 percent threshold required to enter the Bundestag in 2013, a crushing blow for a party that has historically formed a key role in German coalitions.

The party is founded on support for business, internationalism and a laissez-faire approach to the government’s involvement in personal affairs. Things are looking more positive this time around as they, like the AfD, are polling at around 8 percent. However, while that would be enough to see them enter the Bundestag, it may not be enough for a majority with the CDU.

This could mean the formation of a so-called “Jamaica coalition”, in which Die Grüne (Green) Party

Katrin Göring Eckardt
Katrin Göring Eckardt — wikicommons

would help push the CDU/FDP coalition over the threshold. Die Grüne Party, as their name suggests, focus on environmental issues, taxation and social policies. Co-led by Katrin Göring-Eckardt and Cem Özdemir, the party could play a decisive role in any coalition other than the one currently in operation. While the CDU/FDP may well need their support, it looks like the SPD would also have to call on Die Grüne party to have any realistic chance of defeating Mrs. Merkel.

Any such coalition would almost certainly require a third party, which would likely be Die Linke. Literally meaning “The Left”, they are at the opposite end of the spectrum than AfD, with the party’s roots lying in East German communism. While teaming up with Die Linke would undoubtedly be controversial, should it be the SPD’s only route into government, Mr. Schultz may consider it worthwhile. The party is currently led by Sahra Wagenknecht.

Sahra Wagenknecht is a member of the National Committee of Die Linke -- wikicommons
Sahra Wagenknecht is a member of the National Committee of Die Linke — wikicommons

While it looks likely that Mrs. Merkel will remain in office for another term, it is worth remembering much of the current speculation is based on polls. Considering how Brexit and the election of President Trump flew in the face of such polls, it is worth having a bag of salt handy when predicting the outcome on September 24th.