(NEW YORK) — Germans head to the polls Sunday for national elections that could prove to be the country’s most consequential political contests in decades.
While Chancellor Angela Merkel looks likely to win a fourth term, several smaller parties could have a big impact on the 63-year old’s stewardship in her next term.
The most notable is the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a nationalist upstart that has rocked the German political establishment with its rejection of open borders, Islam, political correctness and the euro.
While many experts initially thought the party’s popularity would wane, opinion polls now show it gaining enough strength to send dozens of its lawmakers to parliament. If polls hold, it would mark the first time in 60 years that a far right party would enter the German Bundestag.
“The AfD appears to pulling votes from both of the more established parties in Germany,” said Sudha David-Wilp, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “That could mean a much stronger turnout for the party on election day than many expected.”
Here is a breakdown of what you need to know ahead of Sunday’s vote.
Germany’s notoriously complex voting system does not allow the public to vote directly for chancellor. Instead, voters cast ballots for political parties.
Who are the main players?
There are two main parties in Germany, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), but turnout for several smaller parties in this year’s voting could prove pivotal.
The CDU holds the chancellorship, thanks in part to historic support for its top candidate, Merkel. The CDU and its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), are in the same parliamentary group. Since the end of World War II, the CDU has been in power most of the time, and Merkel is hoping to ride that wave of popularity.
In a poll conducted earlier this month by Infratest-dimap and German public broadcaster ARD, Merkel earned her highest approval rating since the fall of 2015. Just over 64 percent of those surveyed at the beginning of June said they were satisfied with the job she has been doing as chancellor, making her the most popular politician in the country.
Often described as Germany’s center-left party, the SPD is the main opposition party. It’s the second-largest party in terms of voter support, after the CDU. Yet its working class base in urban areas has eroded in recent years as Merkel’s popularity has soared.
The SPD’s candidate for chancellor and Merkel’s chief political rival, Martin Schulz, has managed gain ground in the polls in recent months, but most analysts say he faces an uphill battle to unseat her. A former president of the European Parliament, he poses the strongest challenge to her 11-year reign as chancellor. What role could smaller parties play?
Although several other smaller parties will be on the ballot, observers are likely to keenly watch results for the Alternative for Germany (AfD). While many experts initially saw the party as taking votes from the CDU in national elections, new opinion polls show he AfD hurting the SPD.
Though there has been a significant drop in voter turnout in German parliamentary elections during the past two cycles, the rise of the AfD and other populist movements have drawn in many previous nonvoters across the country, making a higher voter turnout more likely this year, according to observers.
The Alliance ’90/the Greens occupies the liberal-leaning part of the political spectrum. It is not expected to see overwhelming national turnout. But the Greens, with its base of urban, well-educated voters, has used its strong environmentalist tilt to attract a growing number of liberal Germans.
The Left Party, a democratic socialist group, often attracts unhappy SPD members; its voter base is traditionally eastern German and working class.
What are the biggest issues?
Without question, national security and immigration policy will dominate this year’s vote. A year ago, Merkel was riding high in opinion polls. But her open-door policy on accepting refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries as well as economic migrants has cost her some support. Her popularity plummeted last year after she welcomed nearly 900,000 asylum seekers, most of them from Syria and Afghanistan, into Germany.
A series of terrorist attacks — including a truck attack at a Christmas market that killed 12 people and injured dozens of others last year — has opened Merkel up to sharp criticism from nationalist groups. The economy is another issue that weighs heavily on voters’ minds, according to surveys. But with unemployment hovering at an all-time low — it reached 4 percent in May — the issue is playing a far smaller role in this year’s vote than in previous elections.
Germany’s relationship with the Trump administration is at play. Trump is deeply unpopular in Germany, and almost all the candidates have been critical of his policies.
Who is expected to win?
Though the CDU and CSU lagged in polling late last year, their fortunes have changed in recent months thanks in part to surging support for Merkel. Most surveys predict Merkel and her party will win easily.
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