Germany’s Elections: Merkel, Europe’s Most Important Leader, Faces a Complex Challenge

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Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

German Chancellor Angela Merkel stands in front of her re-election-campaign tour bus in Berlin on Sept. 16, 2013

Europe is quiet. You might not have noticed as European governments maintain a flurry of diplomacy over Syria, but the big discussions over Europe’s future — about how to return to prosperity, save the euro, whether to move into a closer embrace or break away — all these existential questions have been put on hold. This isn’t because Europe’s crisis is over. Although the E.U. has crept out of recession, the combined economies of 27 of its member nations registering tepid GDP growth of 0.4% in the second quarter of 2013, the outlook in many of those countries is anything but rosy. (A 28th member, Croatia, joined the E.U. on July 1, too late for its 0.7% Q2 contraction in GDP to register in the combined total.)

Greece is expected to need a third package of financial support. Spain’s public debt has soared to record levels, while its jobless rate stays stubbornly high, at more than 26%. Portugal is chafing against the austerity imposed by the terms of its bailout, sparking a rise in the cost of government borrowing. Slovenia is struggling to avoid becoming the sixth euro-zone country to need emergency aid. The calm in Europe may well prove a calm before a storm. But it is primarily the calm before an electoral contest in the continent’s biggest, most influential member. Central bankers, politicians, businesspeople: across European capitals they’re all on the edge of their seats, awaiting the results of Germany’s Sept. 22 federal elections.

(Cover Story: Angela Merkel’s Unfinished Business)

Victory for Angela Merkel, seeking a third term as Chancellor, might appear a foregone conclusion. She remains popular, phenomenally so, and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), enjoy a 14-point lead over their nearest rival, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), according to a Forsa poll last week. Yet the result is at least as hard to call in advance as it is for non-Germans to pronounce Überhangmandate — overhang seats — or to understand an electoral system that creates and allocates such seats (22 at the last elections in 2009) over and above the notional total of 598 seats in the main Parliament, the Bundestag, actually being contested. Confused? Read this German government guide to the elections. You’ll still be confused. Many German voters are too.

And here’s something that will add to the confusion. Elections to Bavaria’s state legislature, on Sept. 15, produced a stunning win for Merkel’s partners, the CSU, giving the party something very rare in German politics: an outright majority. “Dear Angela, we’ll put the ball on the penalty spot,” said CSU leader Horst Seehofer ahead of the poll, deploying soccer imagery. “You just have to kick it in.” But Seehofer’s victory, rather than helping Merkel, could make her life more difficult. Seehofer — “Crazy Horst” to admiring fans — promises to charge foreigners for using German roads, a promise Merkel has rejected as conflicting with E.U. laws.

Moreover, the CSU’s majority came at the cost of annihilation of the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), Merkel’s current coalition partners at national level, who failed to attain the threshold of 5% of votes required to win seats in German elections. Voters who hope to retain the current CDU-CSU coalition with the FDP at Sunday’s national elections may vote tactically, shifting their party-preference vote away from Merkel’s bloc to the FDP. That might work. Or it might simply erode Merkel’s result, gifting a bigger share of Bundestag seats to the combined forces of the SPD and its preferred partner, the Green party.

(MORE: Why Germany Must Save the Euro)

Then there’s the potential impact of Germany’s newest party, the euroskeptic Alternative for Germany, campaigning for the weaker euro-zone countries such as Greece and Spain to leave the euro. It, too, may drain votes away from Merkel.

During her first term of office, Merkel led a grand coalition with the SPD. Both she and SPD Chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück have told voters that they’d consider another such coalition anything but grand. Nevertheless, in mathematical terms it appears the likeliest option. That could mean Europe’s eerie calm continues for some time after polling day. The 2005 negotiations to form a grand coalition lasted from the elections on Sept. 18 to Nov. 22.

That’s a long time for Europe collectively to hold its breath. The irony of the situation is that it is foolish to do so. The one certainty Germany’s ponderous political system produces is that very little changes, even with changes of government. With or without Merkel, export-dependent Germany will continue to work to save the euro while urging austerity on peripheral countries, its own generosity restrained by constitutional checks and balances and a deepening resentment among German voters. Everyone is waiting for a decision that has already been made.