Leading article: Will Angela Merkel finally reveal her true colours?

Germany's leader could be free of political restraints after the election

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It has so far been one of the lowest of low-key election campaigns, but this time next week it should be clear what the next German government will look like. And this is not quite the foregone conclusion it looks. For while Angela Merkel looks certain, barring some last-minute surprise, to win a second term as Chancellor at the head of her centre-right CDU-CSU alliance, it is less evident what her coalition options, and so her policy possibilities, might be.

In different circumstances, Ms Merkel might have been contemplating the prospect of governing without a coalition. But the German proportional system militates against that. So does Ms Merkel's temperament. She has fought a muted, critics would say almost non-existent, campaign that has amounted to little more than business as usual. Her pitch focuses on her steadiness and competence and the trust she has undoubtedly inspired in many voters. She is not naturally drawn to the limelight, and campaigning is not her natural metier.

Governing, on the other hand, in a coalition which has to be negotiated and managed, has played to her strengths. The partnership with the centre-left Social Democrats – a "grand coalition" that attracted doom-laden forecasts at the outset – is an arrangement that has generally served Germany well. Steered with growing confidence by Ms Merkel, this combination has seen Germany through a sharp recession and presided over the country's return to international involvement. It has also served Ms Merkel well. After four years as Chancellor, she is a considerable figure, not just on the German, but on the European, and increasingly the world, stage.

The real question to be answered by next Sunday's election is who will form Ms Merkel's coalition this time around. She favours an alliance with the free-market FDP, the small party that has traditionally partnered the CDU-CSU. And the positive feelings are reciprocated. The suave FDP leader, Guido Westerwelle, has said that this would be his party's preference, too.

The FDP has made small but steady gains in the polls, in a campaign that has seen the other parties' projected share of the vote at best remain stable. The big losers look likely to be the Social Democrats (SPD), who currently lag more than 10 points behind the CDU-CSU. In electoral terms, the SPD's years in coalition have been a liability. The party is also losing support to the Linke, an energetically-led party further to the left. With the Greens holding steady, too, the centre-left looks set to be seriously squeezed.

Yet the collapse of the SPD is no foregone conclusion, at least not since the televised debate a week ago. The SPD leader, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, gave a convincing performance to emerge from Ms Merkel's shadow as a potential Chancellor in his own right. His call to reconsider the presence of German troops in Afghanistan was a small coup that encroaches on ground claimed by the smaller parties on the left.

For Ms Merkel, though not for Mr Steinmeier, a new "grand coalition" would be a second-best result, necessitating more of the same painstaking compromise that has marked the past four years. In so far as she has divulged any second-term policies, she seems to see herself in an old-fashioned CDU mould, while her courting of the FDP may suggest an ambition be to revive Germany as Europe's economic powerhouse.

While that could mean an improved climate for business in Germany, Ms Merkel has still to show how much of a tax-cutting, enterprise-orientated free-marketeer she really is. On Sunday, German voters will have to choose: do they trust Ms Merkel enough to govern without centrist constraints, or is what they really want more of the same?

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