German Chancellor Angela Merkel is looking to make history on Sunday with a fourth straight election victory. Should she pull off the win that polls widely forecast, it will cement her status as the most important political leader in Europe with important implications, including for Brexit negotiations, plus the European Union (EU) integration project into the 2020s.
Part of the reason surveys suggest Merkel will win relatively comfortably is that the campaign, at least to date, has lacked any significant domestic or foreign policy controversy, even over migration or terrorism, to put her on the defensive. This is unlike some German campaigns of the past, such as in 2002 when the then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder’s opposition to the United States-led Iraq war helped power him to a very narrow re-election success.
Instead, Germans are generally contented, right now, seeing themselves as beneficiaries of globalisation with unemployment this year the lowest since the reunification of East and West Germany after the Cold War. This is underlined in Merkel’s buoyant approval ratings of around 60 per cent — a major achievement given that she has been the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) since 2000 and Chancellor for a dozen years.
If she serves a full fourth term in coming years, she would match Helmut Kohl’s 16 years of office from 1982 to 1998 and surpass Konrad Adenauer’s record of service from 1949 to 1963 as Germany’s first post-war chancellor. In fact, a full fourth term would see Merkel only sitting behind Otto von Bismarck who served for almost two decades in office from 1871–1890, during a period in which he was a dominant force in European affairs, helping drive unification of Germany.
To put Merkel’s achievement to date into wider international perspective, four French presidents (Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Hollande and Emmanuel Macron) and the same number of United Kingdom prime ministers (Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May) have served during her tenure. And Merkel has also exceeded the previous record of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher as Europe’s longest-serving female leader which was 11 years.
While it is likely that Merkel’s right-of-centre CDU will win on Sunday, the exact balance of power in the new Bundestag, the country’s 598-seat parliament, is unclear with some 42 parties standing. The CDU and its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), currently have 309 seats and govern in a grand coalition with the left-of-centre Social Democrats which have 193 seats.
The Social Democrats had been hoping to make very significant gains in the elections. Yet, the party’s campaign, which has centred around economic inequality and the increased poverty rate in Germany, has failed to catch the public mood.
Beyond the ruling CDU-CSU and Social Democrats, four other parties (up from two in the current Bundestag) are expected to secure seats in the Bundestag, which requires them to secure at least 5 per cent of the vote on Sunday. They are the Green Party, the liberal-orientated Free Democrats, the far-left Die Linke, and far-right Alternative for Germany.
While polls indicate Alternative for Germany will win its first-ever seats in the Bundesrat, it hasn’t made as much electoral headway as some had anticipated in 2015 and 2016 it might do. The party is campaigning on immigration: A salient issue in German politics; since 2015, around 900,000 migrants and refugees have been allowed into the country. Yet, while Merkel’s popularity was initially hit by that decision, her approval ratings have strengthened again and the anti-immigrant message is not cutting through with the German electorate in the same way that it did during the French presidential elections, which saw Marine Le Pen winning through to the final round run-off against Emmanuel Macron. This is despite the fact that some elements of the German far right have sought to link recent terror atrocities — including a truck attack on a Christmas market in Berlin that killed dozen people last December — to Merkel’s immigration stance.
In response, Merkel has promised to strengthen Germany’s security forces and recruit more police.
The balance of power in the new Bundesrat will help determine the nature of the new coalition, and a continuation of the current CDU-CSU and Social Democrat coalition is one plausible option. However, other possibilities include a tie-up between the CDU-CSU, Greens and FDP; or a two-way tie up between CDU-CSU and the FDP.
After Sunday’s election, coalition talks could last weeks, especially if there is to be a continuation of the grand coalition. It took 86 days after the 2013 ballot before the CDU-CSU reached a deal with the Social Democrats.
The nature of the coalition will matter for international politics, as well as domestic policy. This is not just because of Merkel’s influence and skills, but also because Germany is the continent’s most populous country and largest economy with its influence likely to grow significantly post-Brexit, especially if ties become even stronger with France under Macron.
The importance of the composition of the coalition, internationally, is highlighted, for instance, by the fact that some in the UK Government believe that a CDU-CSU combination with the pro-business FDP would mean Germany adopting a more sympathetic position towards London in Brexit negotiations. Meanwhile, a CDU-CSU grand coalition with the Social Democrats (which is led by former president of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz) is not perceived to be as welcoming to UK decision-makers on Brexit, and also could be a big stimulus to further EU integration in areas from defence and security policy to deepening of the Eurozone, although Berlin under Merkel will likely continue to emphasise fiscal discipline and reject eurobonds or other forms of common debt.
Taken overall, Europe and the wider world are assessing the international ramifications of a fourth term for Merkel. While this will see much policy continuity, the precise implications will not be clear until the scale of her probable win is clear, and also who she forms her next coalition with.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.