Germany is likely to forge ahead with Merkel policy

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“They don’t know how Steinbruck would manage the crisis, but they feel safe the way Merkel is doing it now and they don’t have a reason to change,” said another political analyst, Yvonne Schroth, a board member at Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, a top German polling firm.

U.S. spy scandal fallout

The NSA spying scandal is the one major blemish on Mrs. Merkel’s otherwise impressive campaign resume, with privacy a major concern for German voters. But many say past Social Democrat governments cooperated in U.S. surveillance programs and Mrs. Merkel appears to be weathering the storm.

“The NSA issue, so far, is not influencing the elections,” Mr. Sperling said. “They think it is a very, very important topic, but if you blame both sides, there is no winner, no loser.”

The opposition last week also seized on comments by Mrs. Merkel’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, acknowledging that a third EU bailout package for Greece — with Germany footing much of the tab — will soon be necessary. Mrs. Merkel has tried to temper the acknowledgment.

Mr. Steinbruck, who was finance minister during Mrs. Merkel’s first term, has his own problems. He has committed several damaging gaffes, the biggest of which has political analysts here calling him the “Mitt Romney candidate.”

Shortly after the media revealed he took in a substantial side income giving speeches while serving in parliament, he made a snide remark in a newspaper interview that the chancellor’s salary is too low.

Mrs. Merkel may be the clear favorite, Mr. Sperling said, but it is not so easy to figure out who will win in an election system where various postelection coalitions are possible.

The German government traditionally is made up of two parties that form a coalition and control the majority of the government. A handful of smaller parties that compete for the role of junior coalition partner have made the face of the next German government hard to handicap.

The TNS Emnid poll found that the leftist Greens, an environmental party, received 12 percent of support, while the Left Party, which has communist roots, came in at 8 percent and the business-friendly Free Democrats got 5 percent.

Coalition options

One option is another “grand coalition” between the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, reviving the shotgun marriage that lasted from 2005 to 2009. Another is an alliance of Mrs. Merkel’s and smaller parties to form a government based on election returns. As in past races, the election may hinge on the Free Democrats, who have served as Mrs. Merkel’s junior coalition partner for the past four years.

Mrs. Merkel would prefer to continue ruling with the Free Democrats, but the party once again faces the hurdle of securing at least 5 percent of the vote needed to win representation in the Bundestag. Analysts agree that the Free Democratic Party tends to perform better on election day than in polls, which would indicate it will stay above the 5 percent threshold.

“The FDP is a really old party, so there are a lot of people who don’t want them out,” Ms. Schroth said.

Conservatives may resort to strategic measures to keep the smaller party in office. In fact, some Christian Democrat voters may cast their ballots for the Free Democrats simply to keep them in the government — a practice known as “loaning votes.”

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