Angela Merkel heckled during speech in German Bundestag

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Chancellor Angela Merkel will step down after 16 consecutive years in power when Germany heads to the polls for the September 26 election. But this is not the same Germany that voted in Ms Merkel in 2017. After the coronavirus pandemic revealed deep-seated problems in the country’s governance – including a gaping digital deficit, flawed education system and low paid jobs – the outcome of this election is wide open.

Polling in the run-up to the election has shown just how tethered the Christain Democratic Union (CDU), and its sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) have been to Angela Merkel over the last decade and a half.

For the first time ever, the Social Democrats (SPD) are ahead in the polls, with the CDU/CSU barely scraping second place.

But while the SPD looks forward to celebrating leader Olaf Scholz as the new German chancellor, the reality remains that it might not be so simple.

In 2017, a coalition took nearly six months to form, as Ms Merkel became increasingly aware that the poor results were her calling card to make her exit from the political fray.

This year, negotiations could be even more fraught.

Speaking to Express.co.uk, Economist Intelligence’s Principal Economist and German analyst, Emily Mansfield, said: “The German election is set to lead to a highly fragmented result, with no party winning much more than a quarter of the vote.

“Negotiations to form a coalition will therefore be difficult, probably bringing together three parties, rather than two, for the first time at the federal level.”

Ms Mansfield said this process could take “some months”, and will have a knock-on effect for policymaking in the EU as a whole.

And until the talks are resolved, Ms Merkel will remain chancellor under the German constitution until Bundestag lawmakers elect a successor.

While previous chancellors have not taken radical decisions during such a window, Ms Merkel’s powers are not curbed and she could seek to make radical decisions as her time in office nears the end.

A leading conservative in Berlin said Ukraine and European Union climate talks are two issues in her sights.

They said: “She will have to play an important role, because everybody in Berlin will be involved in the coalition talks.”

Any delays to coalition agreements being secured could mean Ms Merkel could surpass her former mentor, Helmut Kohl, as the longest-serving post-war chancellor – a record she would set if she can hang on until December 17.

How does the German electoral system work?

Germans will elect the lower house of the federal parliament, the Bundestag, by casting two votes – one for a local MP and one for a political party.

The first vote, the constituency vote, elects an MP for one of the 299 constituencies across Germany.

The second vote, for a party, is a system of proportional representation, with seats in the Bundestag allocated on each party’s share of the vote.

The second vote is the one that really determines the outcome – a party must win at least five percent of the vote to enter the Bundestag, and the makeup of parliament is designed to reflect this vote share.

More than 60 million Germans over the age of 18 are eligible to vote.

The Bundestag is made up of at least 598 seats, and usually more with levelling-out seats allocated.

Although the winning party becomes clear on the night, the make-up of the next government is only known once the winner is able to form an absolute majority in parliament with one or two other parties, so the next chancellor will not be known immediately.

Who might form a coalition?

Polling suggests the next German government will be a tie-up between three parties – but beyond that, not much is certian.

One possible outcome is a “Jamaica” alliance, named after the party colours of the CDU/CSU, Greens and liberal Free Democrats.

Another is a so-called “traffic light” coalition made up of the SPD, Greens and FDP.

A third option might be a “red-red-green” tie-up between the SPD, Greens and hard-left Die Linke party.

Ursula Münch, director of the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing, Bavaria, said: “We are going to have ever larger, more colourful coalitions on the federal level, and as a result it’s going to take longer to form governments.”

This is likely to spill over into 2022, when France is preparing for its upcoming election.

Ms Mansfield told Express.co.uk: “These coalition talks could take quite a while–potentially some months–during which Germany will have a caretaker government.

“During this time EU policymaking is likely to slow–especially as Emmanuel Macron becomes increasingly focused on the French presidential election in April-May 2022.”

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