German Race Tightens as Election Day Nears

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.