German Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen her lead in opinion polls dwindle just days before Germany’s national elections on Sunday. Although the decline is not very great, it is enough to mean that the makeup of the next government, which up until one week ago had seemed to be a foregone conclusion, is now impossible to predict.
While almost everyone expects Merkel to lead the next government, the big question is: who will her coalition partner be? The answer to that question will determine how much power Merkel will actually have to lead Europe’s most important country at a time of economic and financial crisis and rising unemployment.
For the past four years, Merkel has led an uneasy coalition between her center-right Christian Democratic Party (CDU) and its main rival, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Merkel is hoping to win enough votes on Sunday to enable her to abandon the SPD and form a new center-right coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP).
But polls published on September 23 show that public support for a CDU-FDP government has declined to between 46 percent and 48 percent, down from 50 percent at the beginning of September. Combined support for the CDU-FDP fell to 48 percent from 49 percent in the weekly Forsa poll for Stern magazine.
A separate poll published by the Handelsblatt business newspaper shows Merkel’s preferred coalition dropping to 46 percent. Analysts say Merkel needs at least 47 percent of the vote to be able to form her preferred coalition. As a result, if the SPD makes any more gains, the current grand coalition between the two biggest parties appears to be the most likely outcome.
Merkel’s main challenger for the top job, SPD leader and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has focused his entire campaign on preventing the formation of a center-right government. According to the Stern poll, support for Steinmeier has increased in recent days by 2 points, to 26 percent, while support for Merkel has decreased by 2 points, to 35 percent.
What accounts for Steinmeier’s last minute surge in a campaign that has been mostly about economic policies? Some say he benefited from an unusually confident performance in a September 13 television debate with Merkel. But others say he is playing the pacifism card in order to win the hearts and minds of German voters.
Before he was appointed as foreign minister in 2005, Steinmeier was chief of staff to Gerhard Schroeder, the former SPD chancellor, from 1999 to 2005. In this role, Steinmeier was the architect of Schroeder’s successful 2002 re-election campaign, which famously exploited German anti-Americanism and passions over the crisis in Iraq.
Only six weeks away from election day but seven points behind in the polls, a desperate Schroeder in August 2002 suddenly announced that Germany would “not make itself available for an adventure” in Iraq. Tapping into the ingrained pacifism of millions of German voters, Schroeder’s poll numbers started ticking upwards. Schroeder responded by ratcheting up the anti-war rhetoric until it became the main theme of his campaign. And it worked: Schroeder was narrowly re-elected in September 2002.
Fast forward to September 2009, and Steinmeier, facing the prospect of being relegated to leader of the opposition, has started playing the Afghanistan card. On September 13, Steinmeier announced a 10-point plan proposing the withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan. Although Steinmeier has not set a specific pullout date, a foreign ministry spokesman said it would be “a worthwhile aim over the next four years.”
And on September 22, in an interview on the German public television channel NDR, Steinmeier responded to a leaked report by the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, that more troops were needed there. Steinmeier said that Germany was “on the right path” so there was no need to discuss increasing troop numbers.
The conflict in Afghanistan moved to the center of Germany’s election campaign in early September, after a German commander ordered a NATO airstrike that killed dozens of civilians. Two tanker trucks seized by Taliban militants were targeted in the airstrike, killing scores of people in an area where International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops are under German command.
The attack, which the left-wing Der Spiegel called “the end of [German] innocence in Afghanistan,” prompted Schroeder, Steinmeier’s political mentor, to demand a pullout of all allied troops by 2015. Steinmeier reacted cautiously, saying a deadline for withdrawing troops “could be understood by the wrong people in Afghanistan as encouragement.” But on his campaign blog, Steinmeier wrote: “The German military in Afghanistan is not an occupying force and its job is not a permanent task.” Polls show that some 60 percent of German voters are opposed to German involvement in Afghanistan.
The other big issues in this year’s campaign have been the economy and nuclear power. In her last interview before election day, Merkel on September 24 told the center-left Frankfurter Rundschau that a tax-cutting alliance with the FDP “can best find a way out of the economic slump to growth and employment.”
Merkel says she hopes to spur economic growth by providing across-the-board tax cuts totaling 15 billion euros ($22 billion) over four years. She also wants to extend the lifespan of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants, which the Schroeder government, caving in to demands from the Green Party, ordered closed by 2021.
By contrast, Steinmeier has taken the populist route. He says the best way forward is to establish a national minimum wage of 7.50 euros per hour and increase taxes on the wealthy. He has also called for global action on climate change, while at the same time (and without a hint of irony) saying he wants to build coal-fired power plants to replace nuclear power.
The classical liberal FDP, meanwhile, says it wants to completely replace the current tax system with what it calls the “beer coaster system,” so nicknamed for the size of the tax returns that Germans would have to fill out. The new tax code would replace the current graduated system with three rates of 10, 25 and 35 percent based on income. FDP leader Guido Westerwelle has also called for the removal of all U.S. nuclear weapons based in Germany by 2013.
According to the latest Politbarometer poll published by German public television channel ZDF, 61 percent of Germans would prefer Merkel to be the next chancellor, compared to 28 percent for Steinmeier. But by whittling away at Merkel’s lead, Steinmeier has greatly increased his chances of staying in power in a CDU-SPD coalition.
Although it could be weeks or even months before the contours of a new German government take shape, a grand coalition will limit the ability of either of the two biggest parties to implement major changes. If that happens, the course of German politics is likely to be as uneventful during the foreseeable future as it has been for the past four years.