German federal elections are not for the faint-of-heart – or the colour blind. For the first time in decades, when the polls open for 60 million German voters on September 22nd, Europe – and the world – will be watching.
The huge level of international attention is down to the cause and effect of the euro crisis. The domino effect in the crisis exposed just how interlinked our European economies and political systems already were. Shifts in Europe’s political tectonic plates are under way, pushing Berlin to the fore and its influence on post-crisis measures that will, in future, bind us even closer together.
So what is at stake? At its most basic, Germans will decide whether or not to reward Angela Merkel with a third term for steering a relatively steady economic ship in turbulent waters. The opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) are busily poking holes in the Merkel crisis recipe: it has resulted in an astronomical bill for bank rescues, they say, leaving less money for education and investment and Germany increasingly a country of haves and have-nots.
In the euro crisis, the SPD says Europe expects and deserves a clear roadmap from Germany on where the continent is headed, and greater flexibility on stimulus measures for struggling economies.
So what do German voters want? If they could choose their leader directly (they can't: the parties in the new Bundestag do), then Angela Merkel would already be the election winner. Showing little of the usual signs of two-term fatigue, almost two-thirds of voters prefer her to her SPD challenger, Peer Steinbrück.
The only certainty in this election is that the new government, like all post-war (West) German governments, will be a coalition. But which?
For decades, elections in Germany were a three-horse race. You had your choice of two Volksparteien – large so-called "people's parties" of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) – and the small coalition kingmaker, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). The arrival of the Greens in 1983 – entering power with the SPD 15 years later – created a four-party system with two main blocks of CDU-FDP (known informally by their colours: Black-Yellow) or SPD (Red-Green).
The German political landscape began to fragment in 2005 with the arrival of the (dark red) Left Party.
In theory, there is a kaleidoscope of options. But in practice, like the genuine Lego and cheap imitations, not all coloured blocks clip together.
If Merkel’s preferred, outgoing Black-Yellow option fails, she may attempt another grand coalition with the SPD. Mr Steinbrück insists that isn’t an option – at least for him. But if his own preferred SPD-Green option has no majority, two options present themselves: an untested three-way coalition with the FDP and Greens, euphemistically called the “traffic light” option, or an unlikely option with the Greens and their red rivals, the Left Party.
There are now so many multicoloured coalition options in German federal politics that one Green Party strategist joked to me at the weekend: "Alles kann, nichts muss" (everything and nothing is possible).
What makes it so hard for parties to predict election results is that German voters hold more wildcards than ever before. The most important wildcard is a simultaneous drop in voter loyalty and turnout. Floating voters and non-voters are now the most influential election blocs, with pollsters predicting a historically low turnout of below 70 per cent.
"That will be a decisive factor for the SPD," said Richard Hillmer of the Infratest-Dimap polling agency. "The SPD did so badly last time because many of its voters just stayed at home, proportionally more than other parties."
The second wildcard is whether the FDP returns to the Bundestag. Failing to do so robs the CDU of its natural partner and throws overboard existing arithmetic on majorities.
A third, related, wildcard is the arrival of two new political parties: the libertarian Pirates and the Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD). Another flare-up of their core campaign issues – NSA/Snowden affair or the euro crisis respectively – could see them frustrate coalition options even if they don’t enter the Bundestag.
A final wildcard is a modified electoral system that could result in a larger Bundestag than in the past, making previous coalition arithmetic moot.
Given all that uncertainty, it is far easier to predict what isn’t going to happen after September 22nd – particularly for European onlookers with one eye on Berlin and another on the euro crisis. Few outsiders realise how all of Germany’s mainstream political parties all subscribe to economic principles that proved a major source of tension in the crisis.
Germany's politicians, analysts and economists all back the "ordoliberal" school of economics which, at its most basic level, challenges the Keynesian idea of public-sector investment to limit the effect of private economic contraction in an economic downturn.
Thus, despite their claims of difference, most mainstream German politicians are convinced that austerity measures are key to breaking the vicious circle of debt and insolvency to boost private sector confidence and sustainable growth.
"Even a change in the German government would not alter Berlin's commitment to imposing austerity," argued Berlin analyst Ulrike Guerot in a recent paper. "The rest of Europe must understand this and find other areas for compromise."
SPD challenger Peer Steinbrück took Merkel to task for administering a "deadly dose" of austerity medicine, and promised a "Marshall Plan II" of stimulus measures.
But, as Merkel’s finance minister for four years until 2009, he agreed with her approach. In the years since, his SPD has backed the CDU’s crisis strategy in every Bundestag vote. If the SPD returns to power, it will find its stimulus ambitions hemmed in by the same fiscal and budgetary rulebook that EU governments agreed – at Berlin’s insistence.
Historically, German voters like stability and cluster around the political centre. On the evening of September 22nd, they will vote for the government they think will guarantee evolution rather than revolution.