Just over a month before election day, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) are in a commanding position. The latest polls give them over 40 per cent support – fully 16 points ahead of main rivals the Social Democrats (SPD). You might think they’d have little to worry about. However, Germany’s electoral system is so scattered with technical and arithmetical traps that they are not safe yet.

Five per cent is a magical figure in German politics. Like many of its other national institutions, the voting system was designed with the country’s previous sins in mind; it is essentially proportional representation, but to stifle the rise of extremists, a party must gain 5 per cent of the popular vote to be awarded any seats. That leads to strange happenings around this critical threshold.

The CDU’s want to keep power with current partners the Free Democrats (FDP), but they fear the FDP will fail to breach 5 per cent, leaving them without an ally on the right. Then in January, an alternative nightmare played out for them in the Lower Saxony’s regional election. Trying to keep their partners in parliament, too many CDU supporters defected in order to vote tactically for the FDP. The SPD-led opposition defied polling predictions to sneak in by a few hundred votes.

Even if the CDU can steer between these two disasters, victory isn’t assured. On current polling the FDP would win seats, but with 47 per cent the coalition would fall short of a majority. For a chance of a left-wing government, the SPD and Greens would have to combine with The Left Party, the successors and remnants of the East German communists – such a ‘red-red-green’ coalition would currently stand at 45 per cent, but would be deeply controversial.

Then there’s the imposing yet strangely mute prospect of a grand coalition between CDU and SPD. For months it’s seemed like the likeliest outcome. Yet the parties themselves have been extremely quiet about it, fearing upsetting their traditional partners, or weakening their negotiating positions later. Only really in the past week have they, grudgingly, admitted it as an option. Even then, both were determinedly cool on the idea: ‘Nobody wants that,’ Mrs Merkel said.

But she’s quite wrong. Politicians are wary of a grand coalition, but among voters it’s the most popular combination, considerably more so than what either side says it wants.

And so a contest with a clear leader and devoid (so far) of dramatic swings still conceals much tension. The FPD are nudging over the 5 per cent mark, though their position is precarious. The Pirate Party, a colourful but hapless bunch, short of a late surge, seem likely to fall short and merely draw votes away from the main parties. The same goes for anti-Euro protest party AfD.  All the while,
the biggest parties know they will probably end up in the grand coalition the electorate seems to want, but compete to be the most indifferent about it.

For some fearful Christian Democrats, not even this apparent success would give them peace of mind. Already, figures in the party are pre-emptively accusing the SPD of wanting a grand coalition, in order for it to then fail.

Coalition politics is a convoluted and exhausting business. But those here who believe predictions the British system is destined for more of it may wish to take some notes.

Tags: Angela Merkel, christian democrats, Free Democrats, Germany