BERLIN – She enjoys overwhelming popularity and leads an economy that's the envy of Europe. But Angela Merkel is in a fight to clinch a new term for her ruling coalition in Sunday's national election, with polls showing her center-right alliance on a knife-edge as her junior partner's support slumps.
Merkel and her conservative Christian Democratic Union appear likely to fend off a challenge from center-left rival Peer Steinbrueck and emerge as the biggest party in the lower house of Parliament, whose members choose the chancellor — making her the strong favorite to win a third term.
But no single party has won an absolute majority in Germany in more than 50 years. And surveys show Merkel's coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democratic Party, has fallen from the nearly 15 percent support it won in 2009 to about the 5 percent level needed to keep any seats in Parliament.
If Merkel's alliance falls short of a parliamentary majority, the likeliest outcome is a switch to a Merkel-led "grand coalition" of her conservatives with Steinbrueck's Social Democratic Party, the same combination of traditional rivals that ran Germany from 2005 to 2009 in Merkel's first term.
That is unlikely to produce a radical change in government policies. However, it could signal a subtle shift in emphasizing economic growth over the austerity that Germany has insisted on in exchange for bailing out economically weak European countries such as Greece.
Final results are due within hours of polls closing. But with margins so close, the country could still face weeks of protracted horse-trading before a clear picture emerges about the makeup and policies of Germany's next government.
Merkel's center-right coalition might win re-election but "it will be very tight," said Oskar Niedermayer, a political science professor at Berlin's Free University.
Much may depend on the turnout among the nearly 62 million voters — about 70 percent in the 2009 ballot. In the days before the voting, prominent figures from all major parties have urged supporters to vote, with the projected outcome too close to take any chances.
Given Merkel's popularity — polls show her with approval ratings of up to 70 percent — and the economic success enjoyed during what she calls "the most successful government since reunification" 23 years ago, it might seem surprising that the electoral outcome appears so cloudy.
As chancellor, Merkel has won over Germans with her reassuring style, often appearing to be above the political fray. The eurozone's debt crisis has helped preserve her popularity, said Manfred Guellner, the head of the Forsa polling agency.
"She has repeatedly given people the feeling she's taking care that this abstract crisis doesn't rain down on their everyday lives," he said.
Still, it is Merkel rather than her coalition that enjoys sky-high popularity. Voters haven't forgotten public coalition infighting that frequently marred the past four years. Much of the blame has gone to the Free Democrats.
A new party, Alternative for Germany, which calls for an "orderly breakup" of the euro common currency zone and appeals to socially conservative voters, may sap votes from the ruling coalition parties.
State elections in Bavaria last Sunday set off alarms for the Free Democrats, who lost all their seats in the legislature. Since then, they've been angling for votes from Merkel's party since German voters cast two ballots — one for a specific parliamentary candidate and another for a party.
The Free Democrats were never strong in Bavaria but their disastrous showing gave heart to Merkel's rivals.
"Within days, you will be rid of the most inactive, backward-looking, quarrelsome but also loud-mouthed government since German reunification," Steinbrueck told a rally in Hamburg this week.
That was a reference to government infighting over issues such as the Free Democrats' promises of major tax cuts, which were never realized — as well as a much-criticized new benefit for stay-at-home parents that Steinbrueck pledges to scrap and the government's rejection of a national minimum wage, which he advocates.
Merkel's critics say she has failed to set any direction and presided over policy drift. Steinbrueck — who was once Merkel's finance minister and says he won't serve under her again — quipped that if she were in his government, he would give Merkel "the ministry for vagueness."
However, Steinbrueck's center-left has struggled to generate momentum in the face of a healthy economy and a conservative campaign that largely skirted controversy, focusing squarely on Merkel's popularity.
Posters featuring a smiling Merkel declare simply: "Chancellor for Germany."
The opposition's campaign has been marred by problems that ranged from criticism of Steinbrueck's high earnings on the lecture circuit to a much-mocked suggestion by his Green Party allies that canteens should introduce a meat-free "veggie day."
And Merkel has attacked plans by the Social Democrats and Greens to increase income tax for top earners, which she says would hurt the economy.
Merkel has brushed aside concerns that a tight finish would weaken her position as Europe's strongest politician, noting that "majorities in Germany are very frequently narrow."
"If citizens give us a mandate to continue with the current coalition ... a majority, however big it is, we will take responsibility for governing together," she told ARD television.