QuickTake Q&A

Why Merkel Re-Election Bid Matters Beyond Germany


Ready for round four.

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Angela Merkel, Germany’s first woman chancellor and the first from the formerly communist east, is seeking a record-tying fourth term in elections on Sunday. While polls suggest the vote is unlikely to have the drama of the French election in May, there’s potentially even more at stake: Merkel, the European Union’s longest-serving leader, has become the face of the bloc in confronting challenges including Brexit, Russia and disagreements with U.S. President Donald Trump.

1. Does Merkel face a serious challenge?

The main challenger to her Christian Democratic Union is the Social Democratic Party, her current coalition partner. Days before the vote, there aren’t many who think that Social Democratic candidate Martin Schulz stands a chance of ousting Merkel as chancellor. Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament, may have peaked in March, when the Social Democrats jumped in the polls to a near-tie with Merkel’s bloc, which consists of the CDU and its Bavarian ally, the Christian Social Union. In recent polling, the Social Democrats have trailed Merkel’s CDU-CSU by an average of about 14 percentage points. One wildcard to watch will be the performance of the anti-immigration, anti-EU Alternative for Germany party, or AfD.

2. Does Merkel have a weak spot?

Her popularity took its biggest hit after Germany opened its borders to a record number of refugees, primarily from Syria, in the summer of 2015. Her welcoming policy -- 1.3 million refugees have arrived in the country since then -- drove some voters into the arms of the AfD. Support for the far-right party ebbed along with the refugee influx, allowing Merkel to rebound, but picked up again in the final weeks of the campaign. Immigration featured prominently in the televised debate between Merkel and Schulz on Sept. 3. A recent poll showed 36 percent of the public considers immigration to be the biggest political problem in Germany, down from 59 percent last year.

3. What kind of government might Merkel lead?

Even if the CDU/CSU wins the most votes, coalition talks are likely to be more complex than after the previous election in 2013. One big question is whether the Social Democrats will want to remain in a Merkel coalition or feel pressure from their grassroots to move into opposition.

4. What are the coalition options?

Polls suggest two viable options: the continuation of the grand coalition with the SPD , or a so-called Jamaica coalition among the CDU/CSU, the liberal Free Democratic Party and the Greens. The latter would be a novelty in Germany at national level and is therefore seen as less likely. But since the fallback alternative would be new elections, leaders of the Greens, the liberals and the SPD have left open the door to becoming allies in a new Merkel-led government. If, once the votes are counted, the CDU/CSU and the liberals have enough seats to form a government, there’s little doubt they would renew their traditional alliance.

5. If Merkel wins, what will change? 

Not all that much. A Merkel victory would be seen as reinforcing what Germany stands for, including export-led growth and the defense of EU unity. She’ll back German industry, including the carmakers that help drive the nation’s trade surplus. She’s likely to keep U.S. ties as close as possible while upholding free trade, exports and global action against climate change, all of which divide her and Trump. A quick easing of EU economic sanctions on Russia will be unlikely, leaving President Vladimir Putin to face Merkel’s realpolitik mix of firmness and diplomatic engagement.

6. What challenges are down the road?

Beneath the steady hum of the economy is worry that Germany is falling behind in areas such as broadband service and education. That’s why Merkel has dangled -- along with a modest income-tax cut -- more funding for education and research, to make the economy fit for the future and secure jobs. The contours of the EU post-Brexit will be another priority of the next chancellor. As the U.K. negotiates the terms of its EU withdrawal, Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron have been looking to strengthen German-French cooperation on economic and security policy.

7. Will there be a Trump effect on the election?

The U.S. president is deeply unpopular in Germany, which he has blamed for all sorts of ills. During the final stretch of the campaign, Schulz accused Merkel of being too timid in responding to Trump (and to Putin, and to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.) Still, Trump hasn’t been a main driver in the election. Merkel supporters say Germans trust her crisis management when global politics turns turbulent; Social Democrats say the Trump effect helps them because they’re traditionally known for challenging America-comes-first policies.

8. Should Merkel’s lead in the polls be trusted?

German pollsters have generally come close in forecasting election outcomes. Berlin-based Forsa and the Allensbach institute, which conducts surveys for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, provided on average the most accurate forecasts of the national election result in 2009 and 2013. They broadly agree with other national polls on the size of Merkel’s bloc’s lead over the SPD. There are caveats: When Merkel first ran for chancellor in 2005, all major pollsters overestimated her margin of victory over SPD incumbent Gerhard Schroeder. And German campaign managers have feared that Russia might try to disrupt the vote with last-minute leaks or hacks. Should one happen, a terrorist attack before the election, especially one linked to refugees, could yet swing public opinion toward blaming the incumbent government for security failures.

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