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Explainer: What's At Stake In Germany’s Federal Elections

  • RFE/RL

A mother holds her infant at a party campaign event in Berlin on September 21 for Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

A mother holds her infant at a party campaign event in Berlin on September 21 for Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

German voters are going to the polls on September 22 in federal elections that will determine the makeup of the legislature for the next four years. The vote also will determine whether Angela Merkel serves a third term as chancellor -- and if so, with whom she'll have to negotiate to form a governing coalition. Here's more on the vote:

What are the main political parties competing in Germany’s general elections on September 22?

As a result of the last federal elections in 2009, there are now six political parties that have party representation in Germany’s 620-seat Bundestag.

The largest party in the ruling coalition -- controlling 193 seats -- is the right-of-center Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which is led by Merkel. Its sister party, the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), now has 44 seats in the legislature. It is part of Merkel’s parliamentary group -- known as the CDU/CSU "Union." A minor party in the ruling coalition is the third member of Merkel’s right-of-center governing coalition: the market-oriented Free Democratic Party (FDP), which has 93 seats in the legislature.

But polls suggest the FDP could have trouble winning the minimum 5 percent of the popular vote needed to take parliamentary seats.

The largest opposition group is the center-left Social Democratic Party. It now has 146 seats in the Bundestag. The Social Democrats have traditionally had a "red-green alliance" with the Greens, who now control 68 seats. The third minor party in the Bundestag is The Left (Die Linke), which advocates democratic socialism and now controls 76 seats.

Pollsters say a new right-wing party of Euroskeptics, called the Alternative For Germany, could draw votes away from Merkel’s center-right allies and cross the 5-percent threshold to win party seats in the legislature.

While half of the Bundestag’s members are elected from party lists, the other half are elected directly from 299 different constituencies.

There are candidates from more than two dozen minor parties who hope to win individual seats in the Bundestag, despite the likelihood that their party will not be able to get more than 5 percent of the total vote.

They include Republicans, centrists, ecologists, feminists, Christian fundamentalists, communists, socialists, anarchists, and others.

Who is favored to come out ahead?

Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union is the clear front-runner in the September 22 vote.

A September poll by ARD public television suggests more than two-thirds of German voters approve of Merkel’s work during her first two terms as chancellor. More than half of the German voters questioned in the poll said Merkel was responsible for a German economy that, despite the ongoing euro crisis, has been thriving compared to other EU countries.

What remains unclear is whether Merkel’s allies in her current center-right coalition will win enough seats to maintain a parliamentary majority.

Manfred Guellner, the director of the Berlin-based Forsa Market Research Institute, says the key will be the level of support for the liberal Free Democratic Party.

"It could be enough for a new version of the coalition between the Christian Democrats and the liberals," Guellner says. "But it might not be enough because the FDP has deeply disappointed their voters from 2009 and many of them don't want to give the FDP their vote again."

If the FDP fails to win 5 percent of the party vote, the Christian Democrats could be forced into coalition talks with the main opposition Social Democrats to try to form a "grand coalition." That’s what happened after the 2005 elections when Merkel formed a government with her rival Social Democrats.

What are the main issues that have surfaced during the election campaign?

Foreign policy has not played a major role in the campaign, with Merkel adopting a middle-of-the-road position on key issues such as Syria; she condemned the use of chemical wepaons but declined to back foreign military strikes. Debate over the ongoing eurozone crisis has grown quiet. Political analysts say the issue is unpopular with voters, suggesting Merkel has decided to defer any related pronouncements or decisions until after the election.

Issues cited across the political spectrum during the campaign are tied to domestic problems that could threaten Germany’s economic future. There also have been questions about Merkel’s legacy and who might take over as leader of her party in the future. Some business owners are worried that rising electricity costs -- with Germans paying 30 percent more than the eurozone average -- could make them less competitive and lose contracts to firms in countries with lower energy costs.

Merkel's agreement after Japan's 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster to put Germany on a path toward shutting down nuclear power plants was popular with environmentalists. But nonpartisan research groups say Germany now needs to invest more in both its power grid and transportation infrastructure to remain competitive in the coming years.

Labor unions have criticized Merkel’s failure to address poverty that has been increasing among senior citizens as Germany’s population ages.

In Germany’s banking sector, reforms have been slow within the publicly owned Landesbanks that provide loans to medium-sized businesses.There also have been widespread calls for more investment in education, with some arguing that Germany’s economic growth could slow during the next four years without more school funding.

Based on reporting by dpa, AP, Reuters, AFP, and "The Wall Street Journal Europe"
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