MUNICH - Like it or not, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has become the face of economic austerity around the world.
To the rest of Europe, particularly struggling economies to the south such as Greece and Italy, Mrs. Merkel’s rigid financial reforms are deeply unpopular, slashing social welfare nets and raising unemployment to record levels in an effort to get these countries to “take their medicine” and fix their out-of-control budgets.
But whatever her reputation on the rest of the Continent, the strait-laced approach of the unglamorous, East German-born Mrs. Merkel plays extremely well closer to home. Generally happy with her fiscally prudent, don’t-buy-what-you-can’t-afford approach, German voters are poised on Sunday to give Mrs. Merkel and her conservative Christian Democratic Union party a third full term in power in Berlin.
Polls say what has made Mrs. Merkel an unliked figure in other parts of Europe is giving her campaign against center-left rival Peer Steinbruck and the Social Democrats a lift.
“She remains someone who can claim that she kept the euro afloat,” said Jackson Janes, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.
In Germany, many voters refer to Mrs. Merkel as “Mommy” because she has shielded the country from the worst of the European financial crisis. But while Mrs. Merkel seems set for a big win Sunday, barring a major upset, there are a number of possibilities about how the next government could shake out.
The latest polls show Mrs. Merkel’s CDU leading with 39 percent, while the Social Democrats are hovering around 25 percent. But Germany’s next government is far from decided. Even though Mrs. Merkel leads the most powerful party, the CDU cannot take control of the Bundestag with less than half of the parliament.
To form a government, Mrs. Merkel will need to join forces with another party, opening the door to smaller parties teaming up against Mrs. Merkel and forming a “minority coalition” that could knock off the CDU.
“The overwhelming majority of the German population wants to have Angela Merkel as chancellor again, but in Germany you don’t vote for a chancellor,” political analysts of Berlin’s Free University told the Christian Science Monitor. “It is about which coalition is stronger, not which party is the strongest.”
The three others parties that are fighting for a spot in the German parliament are trailing significantly in the latest polls. The environmentally friendly Green Party is expected to take about 11 percent of the vote, while the communist Left Party sits around 9 percent.
The business-friendly Free Democratic Party, which has served as Mrs. Merkel’s coalition partner for the past four years, is on the bubble, polling at just around 5 percent — the minimum level required under the German system to qualify for seats in the Bundestag.
The FDP took just 3 percent of the vote in Sunday’s Bavarian state election, and pollsters say this is a sign that the party has lost support throughout Germany, after receiving more than 14 percent in the 2009 federal elections.
But most analysts believe the FDP will still make it into the Bundestag, because the party, historically, does better on election day than in the polls.
This could, in fact, be bad news for Mrs. Merkel, whose party often performs worse than polls suggest. With the Free Democrats struggling to make it into the parliament, some CDU voters may switch to the FDP, so the two conservative parties can continue working together in a coalition.
A late wild card in the vote is the emergence of the new Alternative for Germany party, which is deeply skeptical of Germany’s European Union ties and favors kicking Greece and other struggling economies out of the eurozone. One last poll says the upstart party is on the cusp of qualifying for the Bundestag with 5 percent support.
Mrs. Merkel has said she would like to continue working with the Free Democrats. But even if the FDP makes it into the Bundestag, it may still fall short of a working majority coalition government.
The alternative? The Christian Democrats could cross the aisle and form a right-left “Grand Coalition” with the Social Democrats, which last occurred from 2005 to 2009. This is Mrs. Merkel’s second option, if the Free Democrats do not get enough votes to help her control the parliament.
“Merkel, presumably, could live with the Grand Coalition,” Mr. Janes said.
But many top Social Democrats have said publicly that they will not work with Mrs. Merkel, even if it means turning down a share in the government, which could make it difficult for her even with a strong showing Sunday.
Mr. Janes believes the Social Democrats are using this to “play hardball,” which will help the party negotiate with Mrs. Merkel for more key ministerial positions.
“The Social Democrats are going to want to have something to show people that it’s worth getting back into a marriage with Merkel,” Mr. Janes said.
• Tim Devaney can be reached at email@example.com.
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