After humdrum German campaign, Merkel hopes for fourth term

Chancellor Angela Merkel appears all but certain to win a fourth term when Germans vote Sunday after a humdrum campaign produced few divisive issues but saw smaller parties gain support — including the nationalist, anti-migration Alternative for Germany, which is set to become the most right-wing party in parliament for 60 years.

Merkel, already chancellor for 12 years, has run a low-key campaign emphasizing the country's sinking unemployment, strong economic growth, balanced budget and overall stability in a volatile world.

Pre-election polls give her conservative Union bloc a lead of 13 to 17 points over the center-left Social Democrats of her challenger, Martin Schulz. The two are traditional rivals but have governed together in a "grand coalition" of the biggest parties for the past four years.

Schulz returned to German politics in January after years as the European Parliament's president. He has struggled to gain traction with a campaign that centered on righting perceived economic injustices for Germany's have-nots. It's also been difficult for him to carve out clear differences with the conservatives.

Merkel offered Germans "a combination of the experience of recent years, in which we have achieved plenty, and curiosity for the new" during the pair's only head-to-head debate of the campaign.

Merkel is pledging to get from Germany's current 5.7 percent unemployment rate — down from 11 percent when she took office in 2005 — to "full employment" by 2025. She pledges limited tax cuts and to keep Germany's borrowing at zero.

And she offers a steady hand internationally, with long experience of European Union negotiating marathons, tough talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and now of engaging cautiously with President Donald Trump.

Polls suggest that Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and their Bavaria-only allies, the Christian Social Union, will come in a few points short of the 41.5 percent support they had in 2013 — Merkel's best result yet. They put Schulz's Social Democrats around or below the 23 percent they won in their worst showing yet in post-World War II Germany, in 2009.

Hans Kundnani, an expert at the German Marshall Fund think-tank, said it's a "foregone conclusion" that Merkel will be the next chancellor.

The difficult part may be forming a new government. Merkel can hope for a narrow majority for a center-right coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats, with whom she ran Germany from 2009 to 2013, or the traditionally left-leaning Greens.

More likely is a result that leaves her either seeking an untried coalition with both those parties, or another "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats. The latter party has pledged to ballot its membership on any coalition deal, which could be tricky if it performs very badly.

A government with the Free Democrats aboard might take a tougher stance on efforts to reform the eurozone and bail out strugglers. The Greens want a faster transition away from gas and diesel cars and a wealth tax on the rich — neither of which the conservatives are likely to swallow.

The junior partners, whoever they are, will have "limited influence over the overall direction of policy," Kundnani wrote in an analysis. He added that "in so far as differences exist between the four parties that could become part of the government, they are a matter of details and nuances."

Polls show four parties competing for third place, with support between 7 and 12 percent: the Free Democrats, who look set to return to parliament after a four-year absence; the Greens, the Left Party and Alternative for Germany, or AfD.

AfD has swung right since it narrowly missed entering parliament in 2013. It has been helped by shrill opposition to Merkel's decision to allow in large numbers of refugees and other migrants in 2015.

Many of Merkel's campaign appearances have been marked by loud heckling from pro-nationalist demonstrators. "This is a kind of intolerance that is very, very difficult," Merkel said recently.

It remains to be seen just how strong AfD's appeal to protest voters dissatisfied with other parties is. If there's another "grand coalition," a third-place finish would make it the opposition leader in the next parliament — a prospect many in Germany view with distaste.

Merkel has regained ground over the past year after gradually shifting to a more restrictive stance on migrants, stressing the need to deport those who have no right to stay and to prevent so-called "economic migrants" from Africa and the Balkans from coming.

But she has kept her focus firmly on the center ground, long a secret of her success.

Over the years, she has dropped military conscription, accelerated Germany's exit from nuclear power, embraced the Social Democrats' demand for a national minimum wage and, in June, cleared the way for parliament to legalize same-sex marriage. That deprived liberal rivals of one awkward issue before campaigning even began.

Schulz says he still hopes to win over undecided voters, arguing that Merkel has no vision for the future.

"There is someone who wants to administer the past. She is called Angela Merkel," he said recently. "And there is someone who wants to shape the future. He is called Martin Schulz."