One of the hardest parts about explaining the German election on September 24th to people in the rest of the world has to do with a paradox: Germany’s leader probably won’t change, and yet there is still a lot at stake. That leader, of course, is Chancellor Angela Merkel, now in her third term and odds-on to win a fourth. In most countries, especially those with presidential systems, this would mean that nothing much will change. But in parliamentary systems such as Germany’s it is the coalition mix that determines policy. You can think of Ms. Merkel as a carbon atom. Will she combine with oxygen, silicon, sulfur or something else? The answer determines the properties of German policy to come.
This is why, as part of our coverage of the election, we have launched a series of briefing on each of the political parties in the German system. In age they range from 154 (the Social Democrats) to five (the Alternative for Germany). In style they reach from finger-wrestling in Bavarian beer tents (CSU) to tying yourself to trees (the Greens). In worldview, they stretch between nostalgia for Karl Marx (The Left) and hat-doffs to Adam Smith (FDP).
To get things started, John Blau, our senior editor, explains the two parties considered the most likely coalition options for Ms. Merkel come September: the liberal Free Democrats (where “liberal” is used in the classical and European sense, not the modern American one), and the ecology-minded Greens. The Liberals appear to be recovering from their electoral rout in 2013, while the Greens seem to be drifting in post-revolutionary exhaustion. But Ms. Merkel could work with both.
And yes, it will almost certainly be Ms. Merkel as chancellor putting the coalition together. And that must itself give you pause. It is rare among world leaders to be in power for 12 years — through financial-, euro-, Ukraine- and refugee crises — and still be popular. Put aside for a moment how you may feel about her. Put aside her politics and policies. As a navigator of the public psyche, Ms. Merkel is a phenomenon — one that I have been observing for years now. The result is our longest read this week, in which I look not at Angela Merkel’s politics but at her body language, especially vis-a-vis the many machos and bullies and rivals she has encountered — and left behind.