Berlin, Germany – For the first time in well over a decade, German voters will enter polling booths for federal elections on Sunday with no clear idea which party will win, who will be the next chancellor, or what governing coalition will be formed.
Only a razor’s edge separates the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) from the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), according to the latest poll by the Allensbach Institute, which puts the archrivals at 26 percent and 25 percent, respectively.
Other polls released in recent days put the SPD’s lead at two to four points, with a margin of error of about 3 percent.
Experts have urged caution when interpreting polling data due to the uncertain influence of an historically high number of undecided voters, as well as an expected surge in postal voting.
Exit polls will be released when voting ends at 6pm local time (16:00 GMT) on Sunday, and results will emerge throughout the night.
Angela Merkel’s decision to depart as chancellor after 16 years has upended German politics and led to the most unpredictable race in years. At various points in the campaign, the SPD, CDU/CSU and the Greens have each been leading the polls.
Climate change has dominated party programmes and televised debates more than any other issue.
On Friday, more than 100,000 protesters joined a Fridays for Future demonstration outside the German parliament building in Berlin, where activist Greta Thunberg told crowds that “no political party is doing even close to enough” to avoid climate disaster.
Other points of debate included social welfare spending and raising the minimum wage, overhauling Germany’s rickety digital infrastructure, and the country’s role in the NATO alliance.
Success and failure in the campaign have largely been determined by party leaders’ ability to frame themselves as a natural heir to Merkel, who remains Germany’s most popular politician.
Gaffes by CDU leader Armin Laschet saw his approval rates tank, while allegations of CV-padding and plagiarism knocked Green candidate Annalena Baerbock’s race off course.
Finance Minister and SPD candidate Olaf Scholz has played up his reputation as a boring, pragmatic centrist to great effect.
A recent poll found that 47 percent of voters favoured him for chancellor, compared with 20 percent for Laschet and 16 percent for Baerbock.
“The issue of succession became perhaps the most important campaign issue,” Kai Arzheimer, a professor of politics at the University of Mainz, told Al Jazeera.
“Voters are more worried or more interested in who would be most competent, and who would be best able to manage Germany and Germany’s future. So personalities have become a major focus in this campaign.”
How the election works
A total of 60.4 million voters aged above 18 are eligible to cast a ballot on Sunday. Voting booths will open at 8am (06:00 GMT) on Sunday and close at 6pm (16:00 GMT).
Under Germany’s electoral system, voters cast two ballots for the Bundestag, the federal parliament, which has a base number of 598 seats.
The first is for a candidate to represent one of Germany’s 299 districts, which is determined in a United Kingdom-style first-past-the-post system.
The second is for a party. These votes are distributed according to proportional representation to each party that passes a 5 percent threshold, who chose 299 more candidates from internal lists to represent them.
A number of “overhang” seats are created if there is an imbalance between a party’s directly elected seats and its share of voters, a feature that has caused the Bundestag to balloon in size.
In 2017, the total number of seats rose to 709, and the number is expected to rise again this year.
The states of Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern will also hold simultaneous state elections. Berliners will receive a further ballot for a referendum to expropriate the capital’s largest landlords and take nearly a quarter-million homes into state ownership.
Germany’s federal returning officer told local media that the number of votes submitted by post would be at least 40 percent, potentially even doubling the 28.6 percent in 2017.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not expected to reduce turnout, he added, noting that regional elections earlier this year did not see any significant decline.
Forming a coalition
In the coming weeks and months, German parties will negotiate with each other to form a coalition capable of governing with a majority in the new Bundestag.
There is little appetite to renew Merkel’s favoured “grand coalition” of SPD and CDU/CSU, so polling suggests three parties will be required.
There are no formal rules that govern coalition talks, which will last until MPs vote in a new government and elect a new chancellor.
The CDU and the SPD have indicated that they will seek to lead a coalition even if they do not come out in the first place.
The most likely options, taking their names from the party colours, are a so-called “traffic light” combination of SPD, Green and Free Democratic Party (FDP); or a “Jamaica” coalition of CDU/CSU, Green and FDP.
The pro-business FDP wants tight fiscal control over finances, which complicates a marriage with the SPD and the Greens, who have staked their campaigns on increasing spending for social welfare and climate protection.
“This might be a very big issue, whether we will have more taxes or higher taxes, or not,” said Ursula Munch, director of the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing.
“The Free Democrats, they promised their voters to have a tax reduction.”
A left-wing coalition of SPD, the Green and the Left Party may be mathematically possible if the latter clears the 5 percent hurdle to enter parliament. The Left’s programme has more in common than the FDP, but its opposition to NATO is a major barrier to the larger parties.
“It will take quite a long time,” said Munch. “It’s impossible to form a coalition before November and we’ll be happy if we have one in February.”
If Merkel does stay on as interim chancellor until December 17, she will make history by overtaking her mentor, former CDU leader Helmut Kohl, as Germany’s longest-serving post-war leader.