BERLIN – Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative bloc is strongly favored to win the biggest share of the vote in Sunday's German election, but the outcome will almost certainly produce a coalition. Since World War II Germany has been governed by coalitions except for about 18 months in the early 1960s. Who teams up with whom could change the country's direction subtly or sharply. A look at possible outcomes:
FOUR MORE YEARS
Merkel's center-right coalition wins re-election. Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, joined forces at the beginning of Merkel's second term in 2009 with the pro-market Free Democrats. The traditional allies agree that Germany shouldn't increase taxes or introduce a national minimum wage and have taken a hard-nosed approach to Europe's debt crisis, demanding spending cuts and painful reforms from struggling countries in exchange for aid.
OLD FRIENDS — OR NEW — FOR MERKEL
If there's no majority for a center-right government, several weeks of horse-trading are likely. The likeliest outcome is a second "grand coalition" of Merkel's conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats, the biggest opposition party. That combination ran Germany in Merkel's first term after an inconclusive 2005 election. The middle-of-the-road alliance is popular with voters but disliked by activists of both parties. The two sides differ over economic and social issues and, to some extent, over the best solution to Europe's debt crisis.
Merkel may also try to form a coalition with the environmentalist, left-leaning Greens. One major obstacle disappeared when Merkel decided to speed up the closure of Germany's nuclear power plants, but this untried alliance still looks highly unlikely. The parties are culturally far apart and have wide disagreements on economic policies — and Green leaders could struggle to get party members' approval.
STEINBRUECK TAKES OVER
Challenger Peer Steinbrueck, a Social Democrat, wants a center-left coalition with the Greens — reviving the coalition that ran Germany from 1998 until 2005 under Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder. This combination would mean a swing to the left on matters such as taxation and social policy; it might also be more open to pooling Germany's debt with that of other eurozone countries.
This coalition's chances of winning a majority look poor. Steinbrueck could try to add Merkel's allies, the Free Democrats — but they have ruled out the combination.
The Social Democrats and Greens might be tempted to link up with the third opposition party, the Left Party. But both say they won't govern with the fusion of ex-communists and other hard-line leftists, which opposes eurozone bailout and reform policies, is against German troop deployments abroad and has prospered in all-out opposition.
WILD CARD: UPSTART EURO-SKEPTICS
The new Alternative for Germany party advocates an "orderly breakup" of the eurozone. Its chances of winning the 5 percent support needed to win seats in Parliament are uncertain; if it does, it's hard to see anyone taking it into government.
IN THE BACKGROUND: THE UPPER HOUSE
Whoever wins will be dealing with an upper house of Parliament dominated by the Social Democrats and Greens. The upper house represents Germany's 16 state governments and has swung leftward over recent years as Merkel's coalition lost a string of state elections. It has to approve most major legislation, so Merkel will have to keep haggling with her center-left opponents even if she doesn't go into government with them.