- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 25, 2013

MUNICH — Less than a month before Germans head to the polls, Chancellor Angela Merkel remains the country’s most popular politician and her conservative Christian Democratic Union holds a significant lead among voters in a campaign that could set the tone for the next decade of the eurozone and trans-Atlantic relations.

Whether a third term for Mrs. Merkel, who has rejected U.S. calls for more stimulative economic policies and taken a tough line with Europe’s debt-saddled southern nations, will be as welcome for the Obama administration and Germany’s European Union partners is another question.

The main challenge to the chancellor’s party comes from the center-left Social Democrats, whose leader, Peer Steinbruck, has tried to use as an election issue the German government’s links to the National Security Agency eavesdropping scandal in the U.S., the one topic that has managed to put Mrs. Merkel on the defensive at times.

Mrs. Merkel, however, has kept her focus on the positive moves she has made for Germany over the past eight years. She takes credit for shielding the country from the worst of a financial crisis that hit its European neighbors hard. Her campaign got a boost Friday with figures showing Germany’s economy grew by 0.7 percent in the second quarter — strong by EU standards — while exports were up and the government reported a $11.9 billion surplus for the first half of the year.

This track record goes a long way with German voters, who have come to know Mrs. Merkel as “Mutti” — an old-fashioned term equivalent to “Mommy” — because she is portrayed as someone who takes care of Germany as if it were one of her own children. Opinion polls consistently find that she is far more popular personally than the party she heads.

“She’s the mother of the nation,” said Andreas Sperling, the CEO of the German division at online polling firm YouGov. “She makes decisions that are not emotional, that are not driven by testosterone or ego, but that are good for the country.”

Ahead in the polls

In a TNS Emnid poll released Sunday, the Christian Democratic Union received 40 percent of support, and the Social Democratic Party trailed with 25 percent. This is on par with most other polls, which give the Christian Democratic Union 42 percent to 40 percent, ahead of the Social Democratic Party at about 24 percent to 25 percent.

But a Forsa poll released Wednesday gave the Social Democratic Party 22 percent, suggesting its numbers may be inflated.

Under Germany’s parliamentary system, voters choose a party, which then picks its own candidate, but most polls suggest Mrs. Merkel would get about two-thirds of a popular vote — far more than President Obama received in his re-election victory over Mitt Romney.

The bigger question for the chancellor may come after the Sept. 22 parliamentary elections: which of the smaller parties the Christian Democrats will choose as partners for the next government.

The outcome also could affect Germany’s response to the eurozone crisis. Mrs. Merkel has responded to struggling countries such as Greece by demanding a strict line of austerity, including tax hikes and spending cuts, in return for aid, a policy course that has caused deep resentment abroad but has strong support at home.

“The public opinion is traditionally conservative when it comes to finances: Don’t spend money that you don’t have,” Mr. Sperling said.

An upset win by the Social Democrats, alone or in combination with smaller leftist parties, could bring a change to that approach, but analysts generally predict a steady-as-she-goes course for Europe’s largest economy.

Michael Wohlgemuth, an economist and director of the think tank Open Europe, said in a recent op-ed piece that the candidates and the electorate have been playing it safe: “Voters appear to have no appetite for excitement or change.”

Story Continues →