For the first time in more than a decade, German voters will go to the polls on Sunday without any clear idea of which party will win, who will be the next chancellor or which governing coalition will be formed.
Only one straight line separates the center-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 survey by the Allensbach Institute, which puts archrivals at 26 percent and 25 percent respectively.
Other surveys 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 called for caution in interpreting polling data due to the uncertain influence of a historically high number of undecided voters, as well as an expected increase in postal voting.
Output polls will be released when voting ends at 18:00 local time (16:00 GMT) on Sunday, and the results will appear throughout the night.
Angela Merkel’s decision to leave the Chancellery after 16 years has made German politics agitated and led to the most unpredictable race in several years. At various points in the campaign, the SPD, CDU / CSU and the Greens have each led the investigations.
Climate change has dominated party programs and television 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 the crowd that “no political party does even close enough” to avoid a climate catastrophe.
Other points of discussion included social spending and raising the minimum wage, reviewing Germany’s dirty digital infrastructure and the country’s role in the NATO Alliance.
The success and failure of the campaign have been largely determined by the party leaders’ ability to present themselves as a natural successor to Merkel, who is still Germany’s most popular politician.
Gaffes by CDU leader Armin Laschet saw his approval rates, while accusations of CV stuffing and plagiarism knocked the green candidate Annalena Baerbock’s race off course.
Minister of Finance and SPD candidate Olaf Scholz has with great effect played up his reputation as a boring, pragmatic centrist.
A recent poll showed that 47 percent of voters preferred him as chancellor, compared to 20 percent for Laschet and 16 percent for Baerbock.
“The issue of inheritance 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 could best handle the future of Germany and Germany. So personalities have become a big focus in this campaign. ”
How the election works
A total of 60.4 million voters over the age of 18 have the right to vote on Sunday. The polling station opens at 08.00 (06.00 GMT) on Sunday and closes at 18.00 (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 that a candidate must represent one of Germany’s 299 districts, which is determined by a first-after-post system in the United Kingdom style.
The second is for a party. These votes are distributed according to proportional representation to each party that passes a threshold of 5 percent, which elected 299 more candidates from internal lists to represent them.
A number of “imminent” seats are created if there is an imbalance between a party’s directly elected mandate and its proportion of voters, a function that has caused the Bundestag to balloon in size.
In 2017, the total number of places increased to 709, and the number is expected to rise again this year.
The states of Berlin and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania will also hold state elections at the same time. Berliners will get another referendum to expropriate the capital’s largest landlords and take nearly a quarter of a million state-owned homes.
Germany’s federal returning officer told local media that the number of votes sent by mail would be at least 40 percent, which could possibly even double 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 a significant decline.
Forms a coalition
In the coming weeks and months, German parties will negotiate with each other to form a coalition that can govern by a majority in the new Bundestag.
There is little appetite for renewing Merkel’s favored “grand coalition” of the SPD and CDU / CSU, so polls suggest that three parties will be required.
There are no formal rules governing coalition talks, which will last until MPs vote in a new government and elect a new chancellor.
The CDU and SPD have announced that they will try to lead a coalition even if they do not come out in the first place.
The most likely alternatives, with names from the party colors, are a so-called “traffic light” combination of the SPD, Green and Free Democratic Party (FDP); or a “Jamaica” coalition of CDU / CSU, Green and FDP.
The professional FDP wants strict fiscal control over finances, which complicates a marriage with the SPD and the Greens, who have invested their campaigns in increasing spending on social welfare and climate protection.
“This can be a very big question, whether we will have more taxes or higher taxes or not,” said Ursula Munch, director of the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing.
“Free Democrats, they promised their voters a tax cut.”
A left-wing coalition of the SPD, the Green Party and the Left Party may be mathematically possible if the latter removes the 5% obstacle to entering parliament. The Left’s program has more in common than the FDP, but its opposition to NATO is a major obstacle for the larger parties.
“It’s going to take quite a while,” Munch said. “It is impossible to form a coalition before November and we will be happy if we have one in February.”
If Merkel remains Chancellor until December 17, she will make history by re-running her mentor, former CDU leader Helmut Kohl, as Germany’s longest-serving post-war leader.