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."
"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.
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."
"There will be a lot of CDU voters that want to avoid a grand coalition, and therefore swing over and vote for the Free Democrats," Ms. Schroth said. "The FDP will benefit from the danger that it might not make the government."
But she said it is "not clever," because if too many Christian Democrat voters swing over to the Free Democrats, it would weaken Mrs. Merkel's re-election chances. The plan backfired in a state election earlier this year, so her party will be wary of this.
"They don't want them loaning votes anymore," Ms. Schroth said.
Regardless of whether the Free Democrats stay in the government, it doesn't necessarily mean Mrs. Merkel will continue working with them, said Mujtaba Rahman, head of the Eurasia Group's European division.
In order to rule effectively, Mrs. Merkel needs to form a majority government of 50 percent or more, but that looks unlikely if she teams with the Free Democrats. In the TNS Emnid poll, they combined for just 45 percent.
This was not a problem in the latest election, when the Free Democratic Party received 14 percent of the vote, but support for the party has since dropped and it is polling only at 4 percent to 6 percent.
Instead, Mr. Rahman expects Mrs. Merkel to form a grand coalition with the Social Democrats, which means the two largest parties would work together in government, even though they have opposite political ideologies.
"The Free Democrats will probably get into the parliament," he said, "but they won't get a majority, in which case Merkel will turn to the Social Democrats."
Despite the prospect of more years on the outside looking in, the Social Democrats are divided over the prospect of a grand coalition with Mrs. Merkel.
The party was part of the government during her first term, but many top officials are uneasy about playing second fiddle again to the dominant conservatives. Mr. Steinbruck has even said publicly that he would sooner leave the party than support this coalition.
That said, the Social Democrats could move on without Mr. Steinbruck after the elections. Many are betting that the Social Democrats will change their minds because the party would rather share power than be on the sidelines for another four years.
"I find it hard to believe that they would be unwilling to get in bed with Merkel," Mr. Rahman said. "If they have a chance to be in government and in power, they will do that."
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