Chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-right coalition are still on track to retain power after parliamentary elections Saturday, but the latest polls show the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and allied leftist parties gaining ground. What’s more, the euroskeptic Alternative for Germany Party is hovering at around 5 percent support, the minimum threshold one must clear to gain representation in parliament. Merkel’s personal popularity and the strong economy remain her trump cards, and she has urged voters in recent weeks to embrace her Christian Democratic Union as the surest way to keep her coalition (which includes the struggling pro-business Free Democrats) at the helm.
In all likelihood, that is exactly what Germans will do, but even a decent outing for AfD or a stronger-than-expected showing for the SPD could force Merkel into a grand coalition with the center-left, a scenario both sides would prefer to avoid. After all, the SPD shed voters to more aggressively left-wing parties last time it was in a grand coalition with Merkel, and Merkel doesn’t seem keen on giving up top economic and other policymaking jobs to an opposition she does not have a tremendous amount of respect for.
Looming in the background all summer have been the revelation by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that U.S. intelligence agencies have conducted surveillance on German soil, forcing Merkel to distance herself from a traditional ally and go on the defensive in a culture still defined by the aftermath of World War II and the Cold War. In that sense, President Obama would likely prefer Merkel be re-elected, if only so that he doesn’t suffer an electoral rebuke outside of his own country — not to mention the loss of an ally on most economic matters, if not foreign interventions like that in Libya and the one pending in Syria.
Merkel has benefited from a mostly toothless opposition, the only resonant critique — of Berlin’s role in propping up the E.U. — failing to reach more than a tiny chunk of the electorate. Her brand as a competent manager is both why many Germans love her and what makes her vulnerable, the lack of inspirational rhetoric leaving something to be desired on both ideological poles, but satisfying hordes of prospering middle- and upper-income voters as well. But the late gains by the left suggest Merkel may not be able to keep this balancing act going much longer, the combination of populist resentment on the left and intellectual disparagement on the right combining to leave her the adult in a room, sure, but also the figure of the status quo in a country that will eventually want to go in a new direction.