Angela Merkel loses popular support ahead of German election — these are her key opponents

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Public support for German Chancellor Angela Merkel has fallen further this week, according to the latest opinion polls, throwing new uncertainty on her continued reign ahead of the country's upcoming national elections.

Germany will head to the polls on September 24 to elect its new government. Merkel hopes to secure her fourth term in power with her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, but new figures released Tuesday indicate that her perceived strength could be waning, giving her opponents greater leverage.

The complex nature of Germany's electoral system means that it is highly unlikely for a single party to secure a parliamentary majority. This means that a coalition deal must be struck with two or more parties.

Here's a look at Germany's key parties and how they might work with — or against — Merkel to form a government.

The key parties

Cars drive past election campaign posters hanging from lampposts on August 22, 2013 in Berlin, Germany.
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Germany has a multi-party system made up of two large parties, three smaller parties and a number of minor parties.

Traditionally, power has either been held by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) plus its sister Christian Social Union (CSU) party, or the Social Democratic Party (SPD). This year, however, smaller parties could play a crucial role.

Christian Democratic Union + Christian Social Union

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives to address a press conference at the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party headquarters in Berlin, on November 20, 2016.
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Angela Merkel is leader of the CDU and has held office for three terms alongside the smaller CSU, which is part of the same parliamentary group. It is considered to be in the centre-right of German politics.

The party saw a lapse in popularity at the start of the year when Merkel came under fire over her immigration policies after a terror attack in Berlin in December killed 12 people. But the party has since regained ground and hopes to capitalize on Merkel's otherwise strong track record and good international standing.

Among other things, the party is pledging modest tax cuts, greater infrastructure spending, an extra 15,000 policemen and cutting unemployment to below 3 percent. Interestingly, despite the backlash earlier this year, Merkel has ruled out setting an upper limit on refugees coming into Germany.

Merkel, seen as the de facto leader of the EU, is a strong advocate of increased integration of the union. On Monday, she announced her support for turning the euro zone's rescue fund, known as the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), into a European Monetary Fund. She said the mechanism would make the region more stable and better able to react to "unexpected situations."

Social Democratic Party (SPD)

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The centre-left Social Democratic Party is the main opposition party in Germany and currently forms a 'grand coalition' government with the CDU and CSU.

In January 2017, its leader Sigmar Gabriel was replaced by former President of the European Parliament and leftist Martin Schulz. The appointed spurred a surge in popularity for the party and pointed to the first major risk to Merkel's Chancellorship. However, as campaigning has developed the party has pared some of its earlier traction.

Under a SPD-led government, Schulz promises a very different Germany. He has vowed to pour billions into the country's infrastructure, as well as pledging greater sums to facilitate labor and welfare reforms. Schulz is a fervent supporter of increased EU integration and would make establishing a economic and monetary union (EMU) a core objective.

Free Democratic Party (FDP)

Christian Lindner, head of the German Free Democratic Party (Freie Demokratische Partei, or FDP)
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The business-friendly Free Democratic Party, also known as the liberals, is headed up by Christian Linder. The party has previously partnered up with Merkel but found itself losing voter support when, in 2009, its campaign pledges of generous tax cuts were torpedoed by the more dominant CDU.

Nonetheless, deep tax cuts remain front and centre of the FDP's policies, alongside cutting regulation and investing in the modernization of Germany's economy. The party is also calling for increased security and more stringent immigration policies, including points-based permits for skilled immigrants.


German Green Party's Cem Oezdemir talks to the media on January 18, 2017 in Berlin, Germany.
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The environmentalist Green party has found support amongst Germany's metropolitan voters and could find itself an appealing coalition partner for either the CDU/CSU or the SPD.

Led by Simone Peter and Cem Ozdemir, it focuses on ecological, economic and social sustainability and is promoting greater infrastructure spending over tax cuts. It is also somewhat reluctant to increase security spending but has suggested curtailing immigration.

Die Linke (The Left)

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Germany's democratic socialist and left-wing populist Left Party is co-chaired by Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger and is seen as a possible bedfellow for the SPD.

The party is heavily focused on welfare spending and redistribution policies and is opposed to tax cuts for higher earners and businesses. The Left is also a strong advocate of greater EU integration and, like the SPD, is keen to establish cohesive European fiscal policy with a European budget and a European monetary fund.

The party also opposes military missions abroad and is campaigning for NATO to be replaced with a new collective security system including Russia.

Alternative for Germany (AfD)

Chairwoman Frauke Petry reacts after her speech during the AfD (Alternative fuer Deutschland) federal party congress on November 28, 2015 in Hanover, Germany.
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The Alternative for Germany party is the country's answer to France's far-right National Front. Espousing populist values, its leaders Frauke Petry and Jorg Meuthen have quickly developed regional support since launching the party in 2013 and have been vocal advocates of President Donald Trump's policies.

It represents Eurosceptic and anti-Islam policies. However, despite being forecast to gain the third-largest number of votes, the party is losing momentum and would struggle to find other allies in government.

"For the right-wing party AfD, the good times are over. Gone are the days of their 14 percent," Torsten Schneider-Haase, associate director at research group Kantar Emnid suggests.

The voting system

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a government declaration supporting the passage of a second aid package for Greece before a vote in the Bundestag on February 27, 2012 in Berlin, Germany.
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Germany is a mixed-member proportional system, meaning that voters cast two votes on their ballot paper – one for a constituency MP and one for a party.

Parliament's 299 constituency MPs are elected on a first past the post basis. The remaining at least 299 MPs are appointed according to the number of votes each party gains within each of Germany's 16 federal states. A party must win at least 5 percent of the national vote or three constituencies to be allocated a seat.

What do the polls say?

A voter casts his ballot in German federal elections as a German flag hangs behind on September 22, 2013 in Berlin, Germany.
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Current INSA polling suggests that Merkel's CDU/CSU will emerge victorious in September with a significant lead over the SPD, though short of the majority needed.

Christian Democratic Union + Christian Social Union – 38%
Social Democratic Party (SPD) – 24%
Free Democratic Party (FDP) – 8%
Green Party (Greens) – 6.5%
Die Linke (The Left) –10%
Alternative for Germany (AfD) – 10%

This means that she will need to strike a deal with either the SPD, as is currently the case under 'a grand coalition', or one or more smaller parties.

Alternatively, Schulz's SPD could see a surge in support in the final weeks of campaigning and gain enough votes to form a coalition with smaller allies.

This outcome looked much more plausible in the early months of the year, when immigration concerns saw Merkel lose support. However, she has since largely recovered those losses and analysts see an overall win for the SPD as increasingly unlikely.

"The difference between the CDU and the SPD is quite great," notes Schneider-Haase. "These numbers will not be the same in two months but the difference remains great."

Commerzbank has evaluated a win for Merkel as the most likely outcome, though it adds that a left-leaning SDP coalition could mean a major divergence for German politics.

"The next German election matters," the German bank wrote in a research note. "Comparing the likely policies of a left-wing coalition with a coalition of CDU/CSU and FDP shows significant differences. However, based on latest polls a leftist coalition is unlikely to happen.

"That means that Mrs Merkel as the leader of the probably biggest parliamentary group will stay chancellor. However, it will make a difference who will be her partner(s)."

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