Chancellor Angela Merkel is strongly favoured to win a third term at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy as Germans vote in a national election..
But Mrs Merkel’s hopes of governing with centre-right allies for another four years are in the balance.
Nearly 62 million people are eligible to elect the lower house of Parliament, which in turn chooses the chancellor.
Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavaria-only sister, the Christian Social Union, appear likely to emerge as the strongest force and fend off a challenge from centre-left rival Peer Steinbrueck..
No single party has won a majority in Germany in more than 50 years.Mrs Merkel would like to continue governing with her partner of choice, the pro-business Free Democratic Party – but polls have shown support for the smaller party fading from nearly 15% in the 2009 election to around the 5% needed to keep any seats in Parliament.
Mrs Merkel has pleaded for “a strong mandate so that I can serve Germany for another four years, make policies for ... a strong Germany, for a country that is respected in Europe, that works for Europe; a country that stands up for its interests in the world but is a friend of many nations.”
Her party has rebuffed calls from leading Free Democrats for Merkel supporters to back them, saying it has no votes to spare. Polls show the coalition in a dead heat with a combination of Steinbrueck’s Social Democrats, their Green allies and the hard-line Left Party – but the two centre-left parties have ruled out an alliance with the latter.
If her current coalition falls short of a parliamentary majority, the likeliest outcome is a switch to a Merkel-led “grand coalition” of her conservatives with the Social Democrats, the same combination of traditional rivals that ran Germany from 2005-2009 in Mrs Merkel’s first term.
Final results are due within hours of polls closing at 6pm. (1600 GMT). But with margins so close, the country could still face weeks of horse-trading before a clear picture of the new government emerges.
Polls give Mrs Merkel popularity ratings of about 70%. The sky-high popularity doesn’t extend to her coalition, which has bickered frequently over issues ranging from tax cuts to privacy laws. The Free Democrats have taken much of the blame.
“They said it was a marriage of love – that was how they ran in 2009 – and then the divorce lawyer spent the whole time running along the sidelines,” Mr Steinbrueck said at a rally in Frankfurt yesterday.
His platform stresses the importance of narrowing the gap between rich and poor. He wants to introduce a national minimum wage and raise income tax for top earners. Mrs Merkel and the Free Democrats contend that both measures could backfire and hurt the economy.
A new party, Alternative for Germany, which calls for an “orderly breakup” of the euro currency zone and appeals to socially conservative voters, could sap votes from the governing parties and complicate today’s outcome. Polls suggest that it could enter Parliament – but Mrs Merkel and others are ruling out working with it.
“Stabilising the euro is not just a good thing for Europe, it is in the elementary interests of Germany,” Mrs Merkel said. “It secures jobs and it secures our prosperity.”
She said that her course of helping Europe’s strugglers in exchange for budget discipline and reforms “must be continued.”
A euro breakup “would set European unification back 20 to 30 years” and ruin German businesses, said Mr Steinbrueck, whose party backed Mrs Merkel’s eurozone policies in Parliament but criticised her for over-emphasizing austerity.
Germany’s government, he said, has “a clear European responsibility to hold this continent together.”