German election: Angela Merkel shores up her advantage

Chancellor knows Germany must work closely with new French leadership or cede ground to populism

In the closing stages of Germany's federal election, Angela Merkel has maintained a solid lead in polls for her Christian Democrats. Voting on September 24th is expected to see her party finish substantially ahead of the Social Democrats and open to forming another grand coalition with them or possibly with the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats. An alternative left-wing coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and the Left party is unlikely unless there is a last-minute surge for Germany's left.

Merkel looks set for a fourth term as Chancellor despite growing pressures over the euro and migration crises. She denies her policies have encouraged extremes in German politics and insists her politics are in her party's best tradition of centrist, sustainable moderation. All of this is consistent with her low-key political style, keeping Germany stable and remarkably crisis free in an increasingly uncertain world. Her political style – high on caution and low on ego – is key to her continued appeal and forms the backbone of her promise to voters in the campaign.

She is essentially pragmatic in her centrism and open to competing visions of how to find solutions, appropriating others’ more appealing policies in the process. For the Social Democrats, this approach is productive in government but much more difficult to handle on the campaign trail.

Her critics see her style as opportunism geared towards retaining power rather than a wise control of the centre ground. Germany’s economy is in far better shape than when she inherited it, they point out, but with large pockets of inequality. Its huge reservoir of savings and external surpluses, they add, could be put to more productive use. Those points are echoed by many other Europeans, who say such imbalances distort the euro zone and frustrate the reforms needed to put it back on a sustainable path.

Despite Germany's leadership role in the European Union, such criticisms have played no major role in the election campaign. German policy is still framed as fear of a transfer union in which their savings would be used to bail out poorer states which refuse to adopt common disciplinary rules. That model is challenged by new French president Emmanuel Macron, who wants a euro zone finance minister and budget capable of stimulating new investment. Merkel has given tentative support to such ideas, but within a rules-bound framework. She knows Germany must work closely with the new French leadership or cede ground to populism in future.

Macron’s preoccupation this autumn is to achieve the domestic labour market and youth employment reforms he promised to stimulate the French economy. On the EU, his success will depend on the quality of cooperation with Merkel. This can be dynamic and its prospect is welcome.