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Europe

Merkel hot favourite as Germans head to the polls

© Photo: AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-09-22

Angela Merkel was expected to win a third term as chancellor as voting began in Germany’s national election Sunday. However, polls suggest she may have to turn to her political rivals, the Social Democrats, in order to form a ruling coalition.

As the voting day comes to an end on Sunday in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is strongly favoured to win a third term in office. But the popular conservative’s hopes of governing with center-right allies for another four years are still in the balance.

FRANCE 24's International Affairs Editor Robert Parsons

Nearly 62 million people were eligible to elect Germany's lower house of parliament, which in turn chooses the chancellor of what is Europe’s biggest economy. According to Reuters, a third of those voters described themselves as undecided in the run-up to the election.

By 4pm, German election officials say early indications of turnout in the country's national poll Sunday showed more voters casting their ballots than in 2009. The Federal Returning Officer said 41.4 percent of eligible voters had voted by 2pm local time (GMT+2). The final turnout of 70.8 percent in the last general election was a record low in post-war Germany.

Under clear skies and mild temperatures, Merkel, dressed in an autumnal russet blazer and her customary tailored trousers, walked to a central Berlin polling station to vote, accompanied by husband Joachim Sauer, as police stood guard near the entrance.

Sister Elisabeth Bauer, a nun, said her main concern was that things stay on an even keel."I think we have a good standard of living in Europe, and for me, this must remain stable. So, to me, voting for the extremes, on the left or the right, isn't an answer," she told AFP.

Marissa Kutscha, 26, admitted it had been a tough choice. "I was extremely uncertain voting... because not much differentiates the parties," she said.

But Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister-party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), still appeared likely to emerge as the strongest force and fend off a challenge from center-left rival Peer Steinbrueck. Experts, however, say a higher turnout could help Steinbrueck, according to the AP.

Beyond that, however, things may get more complicated.

The return of a ‘grand coalition’?

No single party has won a majority in Germany in more than 50 years. Merkel would like to continue governing with her partner of choice, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP).

Chancellor Angela Merkel casts her vote in Germany's national election on Sunday in Berlin. ©AFP

Merkel pleaded Saturday 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.”

As Germans began casting their vote on Sunday, FRANCE 24’s International Affairs Editor Robert Parsons said Merkel’s CDU party was doing well. “It looks like they’re going to get 38-40% of the vote,” he said, reporting from the German capital.

An opinion poll published Sunday by the weekly Bild am Sonntag put support for the Free Democrats at six percent, far from the nearly 15 percent in the 2009 election and dangerously close to the minimum five percent required to keep any seats in parliament.

Steinbrueck’s Social Democrats would receive 26 percent of the vote, according to the poll. The Greens and the Left Party each came in at nine percent.

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 (SPD), the same combination of traditional rivals that ran Germany from 2005-2009 in Merkel’s first term.

“That’s what Germans want,” says Parsons. “They want a coalition that is strong and will bring Germany together.”

A grand coalition is unlikely to produce a radical change in policies. However, it could signal subtle shifts, perhaps a greater emphasis on bolstering economic growth over the austerity that Germany has insisted on in exchange for bailing out economically weak European countries such as Greece.

Final results are due within hours of polls closing at 6pm local time (GMT+2). But with margins so close, the country could still face weeks of horse-trading before a clear picture of the new government emerges.

‘The most successful government since reunification’

Merkel calls her current coalition “the most successful government since reunification” 23 years ago. She points to the robust economy and unemployment which, at 6.8 percent, is very low for Germany and far below that of many other European countries.

However, Merkel’s 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,” Steinbrueck said at a rally in Frankfurt on Saturday.

Who is Peer Steinbrueck?

Merkel's gaffe-prone opponent has struggled to score points and his SPD party still trailed her conservatives by 13 points in the last opinion poll.

Steinbrueck’s 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. Merkel and the Free Democrats contend that both measures could backfire and hurt the economy.

Europe and the Eurozone take centre stage

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 Sunday’s outcome. Polls suggest that it could enter parliament -- but Merkel and others are ruling out working with it.

“Stabilizing the euro is not just a good thing for Europe, it is in the elementary interests of Germany,” Merkel said Saturday. “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 Steinbrueck, whose party backed Merkel’s eurozone policies in parliament but criticized her for over-emphasizing austerity.

Germany’s government, he said, has “a clear European responsibility to hold this continent together.”

A referendum on Angela Merkel

But Parsons says many of the big issues at stake in this election, such as the future of the Eurozone but also fiscal policy, demography, nuclear energy, are in fact of little interest to many Germans.

More than the CDU, voters are backing Merkel, says Parsons. She has a 66% popularity rating, higher than any other leader in Europe at the moment, and “Germans feel that they are well governed”.

“This has been an election about Angela Merkel,” he says. “The CDU understand perfectly well that with her at the head, they’ve got every chance of winning this election.”

If she does win a third term, Merkel will be Europe’s only major leader to have survived the financial crisis unscathed.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Date created : 2013-09-22

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