Germany’s general election campaign kicked off in earnest over the weekend and it promises to be a nail-biter—for third place. Chancellor Angela Merkel looks like a sure bet to win a fourth term as the head of Europe’s biggest economic power when the country votes in late September. Her center-right alliance has a 15-point polling lead over its closest challenger, the center-left Social Democratic Party, or SPD, of candidate Martin Schulz. Merkel’s campaign slogan—“For a Germany in which we live well and happily”—channels a public mood wary of change. In a 40-minute speech to supporters in the city of Dortmund on Saturday that opened six weeks of campaigning, she didn’t even mention her opponent by name.
But behind the confident Merkel and the struggling Schulz are four smaller parties in a mad dash for the bronze—a race likely to determine the makeup of the next government and Germany’s political direction for the next four years. Merkel is almost certain to need a coalition partner to govern. Only once since World War II has a single party won an outright majority.
Merkel’s current government is a “grand coalition” bringing together Germany’s two main political blocs—her conservatives and Schulz’s Social Democrats. His party disdains governing in Merkel’s shadow, and conservatives also say that such a broad coalition should be the exception rather than the rule in German democracy.