BERLIN: German voters look set to reward Angela Merkel Sunday with a third term, for seeing them through the eurozone crisis stronger than before, making her the only major European leader to survive the turmoil.
As the debt drama laid waste to counterparts in France, Spain, Greece and Italy, Merkel has amassed more popularity than any German post-war chancellor, nicknamed “Mutti” (Mummy) for her reassuring, take-charge demeanour.
Pollsters say all roads appear to lead to Merkel, often called the world's most powerful woman, winning re-election.
The vote, in which nearly 62 million Germans are called to the ballot box, will instead turn on whether her current centre-right coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) can hold onto power. Poll numbers suggest it will be a close call.
If they fail to muster a ruling majority, Merkel would be forced into the arms of her traditional rivals, the Social Democrats, in a “grand coalition” -- the same loveless union of her first four-year term.
“We have no votes to give away,” she told several campaign rallies this week after the FDP pleaded for centrist voters to give them a helping hand following a disastrous defeat in a Bavarian state election.
“We will fight for every vote.”
Each German has two votes to cast, one for their local candidate and one for the party, leaving them the option of splitting their vote.
Merkel is fearful such tactical voting to aid the FDP, which is teetering on the five-percent threshold for seats in parliament, could leave her conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) weakened as she embarks on another four years at the helm.
But while Germans look forward to another Merkel term, Europeans in the crisis-ravaged south blame her austerity-driven strategy for aggravating joblessness and economic stagnation.
Meanwhile massive bailout packages for stricken countries, financed in large part by Germany, have given rise to an anti-euro party, AfD, which is now flirting with the five-percent mark.
If it manages to enter parliament, analysts say the electoral maths would shift to such an extent that the centre-right would lose their ruling majority, making a grand coalition nearly inevitable.
Advocates of stronger stimulus measures had placed their hopes in the Social Democrats but their gaffe-prone candidate Peer Steinbrueck, 66, has stumbled repeatedly and the SPD is now trailing the conservatives by a 13-point margin in opinion polls.
Rude gestures, cheap wine
A front-page photo showing him making a rude hand gesture, derisive comments about cheap wine, complaints about the chancellor's “low” salary and whingeing about Merkel's popularity due to a “women's bonus” were only a few of Steinbrueck's missteps on the campaign trail.
“I'm a straight-talker, which can occasionally scandalise people but I am not boring and I am not unfair and I am not unsure about what I am trying to convince voters of,” he told rolling news channel NTV Wednesday when asked about his brash style.
He has zeroed in on the growing low-wage sector in Europe's top economy, feeding economic inequality just as the country boasts healthy growth rates and the lowest unemployment level in two decades.
Steinbrueck, a former finance minister, calls for a national minimum wage while Merkel favours more flexible pay agreements hashed out between employers and unions for various sectors and regions.
“I don't agree with this constant haggling -- Germany needs a minimum wage,” 63-year-old pensioner Gitta Klever from the western Ruhr Valley told AFP.
“It needs to be set down in policy.”But political scientist Nils Diederich at Berlin's Free University said that 23 years after the country's reunification, most Germans are upbeat about their prospects -- a boon for any incumbent.
“The scepticism and angst that you used to see in Germany, above all the fears about the future, have given way to relative satisfaction with the economy and confidence about the future,” he told AFP.
Steinbrueck has only one foreseeable path to the chancellery -- a coalition with the ecologist Greens and the far-left Linke -- a group which taken together is running neck-and-neck with Merkel's team.
But he has ruled out any tie-up with the Linke given its distance from the mainstream on economic issues and its historical ties to East Germany's ruling communists.