It seems likely that Angela Merkel will be given a mandate to serve a third term in office as chancellor. But what party will her CDU/CSU alliance choose as a partner? German voters favor a coalition with the SPD.
Three days before the election - and millions of people in Germany find a letter in their mailbox, signed by "Angela Merkel, Federal Chancellor and CDU Chairwoman". The letter says: "If you want me to continue my job as your Chancellor please cast your ballot on Sunday and give both votes to the CDU." The last four words are printed in bold.
The expensive campaign is Merkel's reaction to the last-minute efforts made by her current junior partner, the Free Democratic Party, to convince CDU voters to give their vote to the FDP instead. Germany's liberals were kicked out of the regional parliament in Bavaria at recent elections, and the FDP has aggressively asked for votes so that the party meets the five-percent threshold to get into parliament. But the CDU's political headquarters' reply is: Everyone has to fight for themselves now.
Merkel doesn't want and doesn't need to tie her own fate to that of her ailing coalition partner, who, according to recent polls, might receive little more than five percent of the vote. That means the coalition between CDU/CSU and FDP – or black and yellow coalition – would get a maximum of one percent of votes more than the opposition. Add to that the statistical leeway and it's far from clear that the current coalition can be continued.
But the chancellor is in a comfortable situation: Merkel's conservative alliance of CDU/CSU will probably emerge as the strongest party with close to 40 percent of votes. They are then free to pick their desired coalition partner. The Social Democrats (SPD) have already stepped forward, in case the FDP fails.
Both Merkel and her challenger from the SPD, Peer Steinbrück, have stressed again and again that such a coalition would not be their top choice. SPD candidate Steinbrück even said publicly he wouldn't want to give Angela Merkel "a leg up". He wants to become chancellor in a government coalition between the SPD and the Greens instead.
Left alliance nothing but a campaign specter
The latest polls, however, suggest that the SPD and Greens together may only receive 36 percent of the vote. That's why many observers in Berlin are expecting a coalition between the country's two largest parties, CDU/CSU and SPD – without Steinbrück's participation. Most political scientists and the media would prefer a different outcome, but among voters it's the most popular scenario.
The top ranks of the Social Democrats are already preparing themselves for a new edition of the so-called ‘grand coalition', which ruled the country between 2005 and 2009. A debate has started within the party if and when to introduce a members' vote that would decide over a possible alliance with Merkel's conservatives. It's a controversial issue in the SPD.
In theory, the Social Democrats could possibly even topple Angela Merkel – with the support of the Greens and the Left Party. But they would have to join forces – and that's something the conservatives have often brought up as a doomsday scenario during the campaign.
But both the SPD and the Greens reject an alliance with the Left Party. They call the party "not fit for government", and base that assessment on what the Left stands for. They have voted against all euro rescue measures in the past, they want to end all German army missions abroad, and they want to dissolve Nato. The Left party is also seen as unpredictable because of its many different groupings and the far left, radical wing in its party.
Numerically, even a coalition between CDU/CSU and the Greens could be possible on the federal level for the first time. But that's a highly unlikely outcome. One big obstacle, the issue of nuclear power, may have been cleared from their path with the help of the turnaround in Germany's energy policy following the atomic disaster in Fukushima, Japan, but the two parties' standpoints on family and society remain too far apart. A coalition between them would likely collapse sooner or later.
Steer through eurozone crisis with a narrow majority?
All polls show that voters would favor a grand coalition between CDU/CSU and SPD with Angela Merkel as chancellor. Voters say such a government could tackle the two topics ‘social justice' and ‘euro rescue' simultaneously.
Angela Merkel recently called the Social Democrats "unreliable in fields of European policy". But that is seen as mere election bluster. In recent years, the SPD has supported all euro rescue packages in parliamentary votes.
Merkel will need broad support for her euro rescue policy in parliament in the future - especially if the rebels of the newly founded party ‘Alternative for Germany' (AfD) cross the five-percent threshold and make it into the Bundestag. They want to return to Germany's former currency, the deutschmark.
The chancellor would benefit from another advantage of a grand coalition: it would then be up to the Social Democrats to gather support for government policies in Germany's upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, which represents the German states and is dominated by the SPD and the Greens. But it would also come at a risk for Merkel: the SPD could be inclined to use the Bundesrat to apply pressure and weaken the chancellor's position in the cabinet and push through SPD demands.
During recent public events, the Merkel has maintained that her preferred option is to continue the government coalition with the FDP. When asked whether she believes a majority of two to three votes is enough to rule the country together with the FDP, her standard reply was that narrow majorities are not unusual in German politics.