BERLIN – Since the end of World War II, Germans have shown a preference for a slow, steady hand over charismatic fervor when looking for a leader — especially in times of crisis.
That has played out perfectly for Angela Merkel as she heads into elections this weekend that, barring surprises, will hand her a new term as chancellor — making her the first major European leader to be re-elected since the global financial meltdown.
The no-nonsense Merkel has been buoyed by voters' respect for competent management and Germans' propensity to stick with what they know as they navigate uncertain waters.
It was such a sentiment that helped Helmut Kohl — another low-key politician — to win a third term in 1990 as Germans faced an uncharted and unsettling bid to reunite East and West Germany.
Similarly, Konrad Adenauer served 14 years as the first chancellor of West Germany, elected in 1949 and lasting through 1963 — a period of tumult in a Europe gripped by the Cold War.
While the 54-year-old Merkel is personally popular among voters — some 49 percent said they would vote for her directly — she cannot be sure that will translate into her Christian Democratic party winning enough votes to form a coalition with her preferred partners, the Free Democrats. Germans vote for parties and do not directly elect candidates.
Merkel has campaigned for that partnership in hopes of ending an awkward four-year "grand coalition" with her main rivals, the Social Democrats, led by her foreign minister and vice chancellor, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
While the grand coalition has provided Germans with a degree of stability, Merkel has argued that more economic reforms are needed, and only possible, in a coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats.
"In order to preserve and increase our prosperity, we need growth-oriented policies," Merkel said recently. "I think we can implement this growth-oriented policy better and with more determination in a new government" with the Free Democrats.
The most recent poll by the Forsa agency shows Merkel's party ahead with 35 percent support compared to 26 percent for the Social Democrats. The Free Democrats have polled 13 percent — which would give Merkel's preferred center-right alliance a total of 48 percent, compared with 47 percent for their rivals combined.
While economic issues have dominated the campaign, Merkel, if re-elected, can expect to face a slew of tough foreign policy challenges soon into her second term.
They include Germany's unpopular contribution to the military mission in Afghanistan, efforts to fight climate change, and the ongoing attempt to adopt regulations for financial markets worldwide.
Merkel has championed what she calls a "charter for sustainable growth" since January and recently welcomed President Barack Obama's proposal for a new global framework that would force countries to radically change how they manage their economies and restrain dangerous imbalances.
While Merkel has failed to push through her toughest economic reforms, many analysts praise her coalition's handling of the crisis, saying the lack of a clear opposition promoted smooth leadership in tough times.
"The grand coalition has been much more successful than it has been given credit for," said Eberhard Sandschneider of the German Council on Foreign Relations. "They have handled the crisis very well."
However, during their only debate earlier this month, Steinmeier said the grand coalition "fell short of its possibilities" because Merkel's party failed to support center-left proposals such as the introduction of a minimum wage.
His party insists that with the nation running a record deficit, it is not the time to cut taxes as Merkel proposes and calls instead for a nationwide minimum wage as a way to ensure prosperity, but would cut the lowest income tax rate and raise the top rate.
Germany is the world's second biggest exporter after China, and it has kept its unemployment rate hovering at around 8 percent amid the financial crisis, through a series of government-backed short-term contracts.
Despite the global slowdown, German business confidence has been on the upswing for six months, reaching one-year high this month. That has favored the country's famed "mittelstand" segment, the small- to mid-sized family businesses that form the backbone of the national economy.
Another challenge the government will grapple with is public disenchantment with the Afghan mission and the growing dangers faced by German troops.
"The hate (by Afghans) is increasing," said Christian Neumann, a former German soldier who was stationed in Afghanistan. "And we also noticed that our tactics of heightened military build up ... are not helping to solve the conflict in Afghanistan."
Al-Qaida warned German voters via videos posted online to change government and bring soldiers home or face "a rude awakening after the elections."
Yet with all leading parties in agreement over staying put, the issue did not play a major role in the campaign. Only the radical Left Party has called for an immediate pullout.
Both Merkel and Steinmeier have ruled out a coalition with the Left, a mix of former East German communists and Social Democrats angered by economic reform.