In an era of political earthquakes, the contest for control of Europe’s economic powerhouse has barely caused a tremor. On 24 September, Germans will vote on who they think should lead their country. But in all likelihood, the Chancellor will remain the same the day after, although she might be wearing a different pantsuit.
Angela Merkel is marching steadily towards her fourth term as German Chancellor. She has managed her country through the global financial crisis, and more recently, a migrant crisis. Germans argue about how she has run the country, but, for over a decade, no politician has convinced the public they could do it better. And, judging by the polls in the lead up to election day, Martin Schulz of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) is unlikely to change that.
Other parties competing for votes include the liberal Free Democratic party (FDP), which was booted out of the Bundestag in 2013, and the rightwing populists Alternative for Germany, which could win seats for the first time. And, on the left, are the Green party, and the Left, which originates from East Germany’s communists.
The smaller parties are all polling at around 10 per cent of the vote, but most could form part of a coalition government (but the FDP would not support Merkel’s plans for Eurozone integration).
Merkel has stolen votes from the SPD in the past by moving to the left on key policies, such as the minimum wage and allowing a Bundestag vote on gay marriage (although she voted against it). However, her central offer to German voters is her record on the economy. Unemployment is low (just 3.8 per cent in June), and in the first half of 2017, Germany achieved a budget surplus of €18.3bn (£16.3bn), the second highest recorded since reunification. This is huge political capital for Merkel, and she is using it to full advantage in this election, promising €15bn in tax cuts.
The worst criticism Merkel has faced this election is that she is boring, and has been in power for two long. In a TV debate earlier this month, she appeared conciliatory, agreeing with much of what her opponent said. The international community has become used to more fiery debates.
But it seems there is no appetite for political bust-ups in Germany; her steady campaign has proved popular. A poll from broadcaster ARD this month put Merkel’s personal approval rating at 63 per cent. Her party is far ahead of the rival SPD, polling at around 38 per cent, compared to the SPD’s 22 per cent. Merkel won’t win outright, she will have to form a coalition. And perhaps Merkel’s TV manner was intended as an advert for this: showing she can work with the SPD, even if the parties don’t agree.
Martin Schultz, leader of the centre-left SPD, is Merkel's main challenger in the race for the Bundestag. Formerly the president of the European Parliament, a position he held for five years, Schulz was elected to lead the SPD in March. He won 100 per cent of the votes cast in the party’s leadership election, and said his overwhelming victory was a “prelude to conquest of the chancellery”. And it appeared enthusiasm for Schulz wasn’t just confined to party activists; support for the SPD in the polls shot up from around 20 per cent to over 30 per cent, neck-and-neck with Merkel’s CDU.
But Schultz’s shine wore off this summer. He lost in a string of regional elections to the CDU, including in Germany’s most populous sate, North Rhine-Westphalia. Schulz and the SPD have since struggled to regain momentum.
As a leader of the centre-left, Schulz has been unable to take full advantage of Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to refugees in 2015, possibly the least popular decision of her premiership.
In the TV debate, Schulz said Merkel should have collaborated more with European allies, but he is not anti-immigration, and instead backs a point-based migration policy. Both Schluz and Merkel want to see more comprehensive integration of refugees into German society.
On other areas of policy, Schulz’s SPD has failed to differentiate itself.
The SPD has pledged €30bn in spending on infrastructure and education, but the CDU has also promised to raise spending. Both parties back more integration and reformation of the EU, and both would increase spending on defence, although Merkel would spend more.
Perhaps the area on which the parties differ most is tax; the SPD would increase the top rate of income tax from 42 per cent to 45 per cent, to fund tax cuts for poorer citizens.
How it works: Germany’s complex voting system
Germany fills its Bundestag using the mixed-member proportional voting system. German voters get two votes: one for a candidate in their area, another for the party they support.
There are 299 voting districts, and candidates who win in their district gets a seat in the Berlin parliament.
The rest of the seats in parliament are allocated according to the share of the second vote won by each parliament. At least another 299 seats are added in this way, although it can be more if so-called “balance seats” are added to make sure parliament reflects the share of the second votes won by each party.
However, there is one extra complication: parties must win at least five per cent of the national vote, of three constituencies, to enter the Bundestag. The measure is intended to keep extreme parties out of parliament.