Analysis The Center Can Hold

Germany’s Merkel Dominates Preelection Polls

This fall’s election is likely to strengthen Angela Merkel’s position as German chancellor.

When German voters decide the new composition of the Bundestag in the fall of this year, one thing seems almost inevitable: Angela Merkel will remain chancellor, unless all three parties left of center agree to form a coalition government of their own.

Although the scenario seems highly improbable, Merkel will be presented with a tough choice of her own. While it is too early to put too much faith in opinion polls, the current numbers are startling: Merkel’s conservatives are consistently breaking the 40 percent mark while the Social Democrats led by Peer Steinbrück can barely meet 30 percent of voter approval.

But Merkel’s present coalition partners, the liberal Free Democrats, are caught in a battle for political survival, failing to meet the necessary 5 percent mark to be represented in parliament in almost every poll. In recent weeks it has become clear that the Christian Democrats are already taking the possibility of a new coalition partner into their calculations, showing a dwindling support for the liberals in upcoming provincial elections. This strategy is painful for the liberals but makes sense from Angela Merkel’s point of view. Why rely on a razor’s edge majority on the right when a more comfortable margin could be reached with the Social Democrats or the Greens?

The fact that the Merkel’s Bavarian sister party, the Christlich-Soziale Union, is also losing in the polls shows that the strong position of the conservatives is to a large degree a consequence of the chancellor’s personal charisma. Such a description would have struck many observers as absurd in the past, for Merkel was never known to be a charismatic speaker, but her calm handling of the European sovereign debt crisis is seen as appropriate by many Germans. Even the fiercest critics of the chancellor’s economic and European policy have not had a lasting impact on voters who view the crisis not just as one of economics, rather one of mentality. Supported by the still strong German economy, the government is reaping the fruits of a new German self-esteem.

Such considerations will play a crucial role in coalition talks following the election. Steinbrück is trailing behind in popularity. 71 percent of voters has a positive view of Merkel compared to his 54 percent. Regardless of the future ruling coalition, the impact of Merkel’s personality will make it difficult for any partner to overcome being dominated by the conservatives.

Indeed, having the Social Democrats as the junior partners would considerably strengthen the conservatives’ position. Not only is such a grand coalition the most trusted form of government in Germany; in combination with Merkel’s present popularity, there is a chance to push through far-reaching reforms into a more conservative direction.

It does not come as a surprise that the Green party is distancing itself from the prospect of being a coalition partner because it fears being depicted as a simple majority provider for Merkel’s political agenda.

If current trends should turn out to be robust, the impact on European policies in 2014 could be substantial. A vote for Merkel would also be a vote for increased German leadership in Europe which could cause increased tension not only between Berlin and Paris but between Berlin, Rome and Madrid. Additionally, a more assertive Germany could further alienate the United Kingdom from the European Union.

It is too early to tell whether such a scenario would have a positive or negative impact on the future of the European project but one thing is clear: Germans this fall not only vote on the future of their own country but its role in Europe as well.