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Germans are voting on Sunday in federal elections that are likely to see Angela Merkel win a 4th consecutive term as Chancellor after a campaign notable for its lack of drama.
While Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), are well ahead in the polls to be the biggest group in parliament, coalitions are the rule in Germany and governments are an alliance of multiple parties. From how to reform the European Union to where to focus investment at home, the question of who will govern Europe’s most powerful economy alongside Merkel is one of great consequence – and it will be answered by how the votes fall on Sunday.
And beyond the shape of the government, this election is likely to see the Alternative for Germany (AfD) become the first far-right party to enter Germany’s parliament in 65 years – and with seats will come financial resources and greater visibility.
The AfD was founded only in 2013 as an anti-euro party, and four years ago fell just short of the 5% thresholded needed to enter parliament. The party has been mired in controversy: nationalist rhetoric and themes of the past have resurfaced, candidates’ social media profiles reveal evidence of far-right extremism, and the party has shifted its focus from Europe’s financial crisis to immigration and identity. It ran a campaign based mostly on an anti-migrant and Islamophobic platform, and, according to the polls, has seen its support double since the last election.
Merkel, who has been chancellor since 2005, goes into the election with a comfortable lead, buoyed by the fastest growing economy in the G7 and record low unemployment. Poll after poll has her on her way to a fourth successive election victory – a feat that would match Helmut Kohl, the father of German reunification.
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For a few weeks between February and March this year, a Merkel victory didn’t seem a foregone conclusion. When the Social Democratic Party (SPD) backed the former president of the European Parliament Martin Schulz as their candidate to take Merkel on, the polls tightened. Some even had the SPD briefly in the lead.
However, the so-called “Schulz effect” turned out to be a momentary blip. The latest figures put the CDU/CSU some 15 points ahead of the SPD. A survey published last week had the social democrats on 20%. Such a result would be a record low for the party. (The last time the country voted, in 2013, the CDU/CSU won 41.5% of the vote. The SPD 25.7%).
The election has all the semblance of a vote for continuity, but scratch a little under the surface, and the country’s next parliament is likely to look rather different to the outgoing one. The combined force of the two largest parties is set to drop. There will be more parties in parliament than ever before, and the overall composition of parliament will tilt to the right.
Behind the CDU/CSU and the SPD, the race for third place is extremely tight. Four parties go into the vote divided by only a couple of percentage points. On the far right, there’s the AfD, while at the other end of the political spectrum there’s Die Linke (The Left), which is anti-Nato and Russia-friendly, with its support stronger in former East Germany. Neither of these parties will get anywhere near the governing coalition.
In the pot of parties that could end up in government, there are the Greens and the liberal FDP. Should the SPD rule out another grand coalition with the CDU/CSU, Merkel will look to both to form a government. Their relative strength after Sunday’s vote is one of the election’s most important factors to follow.
After losing all their seats in 2013, the FDP is set to return to parliament. Much of the liberal revival has been built on the fresh and digital savvy image of party leader Christian Lindner, which has helped the party’s pro-business message to cut through.
Under Lindner’s leadership, the FDP, who would normally be considered the CDU/CSU’s natural ally, has shifted to the right in order to differentiate itself from Merkel’s party. It has landed on a more hawkish economic position, especially on Eurozone integration, compared to Merkel’s, while hinting at a more dovish one in regards to relations with Russia and its annexation of Crimea.
Those close to Merkel suggest she would prefer a coalition with the Greens. Earlier this month she said: “I imagine that the humane shaping of globalisation could be very exciting for the Green party too.”
A coalition with the Greens would also make it easier for Merkel to work with Emmanuel Macron on a set of EU reforms the French president campaigned on, including the creation of a eurozone budget and finance minister.
Whether the SPD will fancy another coalition with Merkel will depend on how badly the party performs on Sunday. The lower the social democratic score, the lower their appetite for another grand coalition is likely to be. During the campaign, a number of SPD voices said the party should opt for a term in opposition to rebuild consensus rather than another four years as Merkel’s junior coalition partner.
SPD chairman and candidate for Chancellor Martin Schulz.
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The latest polls suggest that any two-party alternative to a continuation of the current CDU/CSU-SPD grand coalition could be arithmetically complicated to assemble. On current numbers, any other solution – be it a CDU/CSU coalition with the liberals or an alliance with the Greens – would fall short of a majority.
With the lineup behind the two main parties so finely balanced even a small difference of a few percentage points could have a significant impact because of Germany’s proportional voting system.
The country’s electoral system is a combination of a “first-past-the-post” election of constituency candidates and proportional representation. Germans cast two votes. Roughly half of parliament’s MPs are directly elected in the country’s 299 constituencies (the first vote).
The second vote is proportional, and is cast for a party list in each region. It it is this second vote that determines the total number of seats each party wins in the 598-seat parliament.
In order to maintain proportionality, parties can be assigned additional seats if there is a mismatch between the two votes or if there is the need to ensure that the distribution of seats across parties matches the second vote totals as much as possible. This means that you can end up with a parliament of more than 598 MPs. Parties need to get 5% of the vote, or win at least three constituencies, to enter parliament.
Polls open at 08:00 CET and close at 18:00 CET. Exit polls are published as soon as the polls close. Initial projections are released shortly afterwards, and updated throughout the evening.
The bigger picture should be clear within an hour of polls closing. After that, it will be weeks of haggling before a new government is in place.