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As Germans voted in parliamentary elections on Sunday that will have wide repercussions across Europe, GlobalPost takes a look at some of the major issues. Senior correspondent Paul Ames made a 900-mile roadtrip across all 16 German states to take the measure of the continent’s most influential country.
As elections loom, the German chancellor is on track to remain the preeminent politician in Europe.
Editor's note: As Germans prepare for parliamentary elections later this month, senior correspondent Paul Ames made a 900-mile roadtrip across all 16 German states to take the measure of Europe’s most influential country. This is the first in his five-part series.
TEMPLIN, Germany — In Angela Merkel's hometown, you would look in vain for any sign showing Europe’s powerful politician grew up here.
The house where her pastor father raised his family in a leafy complex that cares for the mentally handicapped on the edge of town is unmarked.
The school the young Merkel biked to bears no monument to commemorate its onetime star pupil.
A plaque outside St. George's Chapel, where 23-year-old Angela Kasner married her first husband Ulrich Merkel in 1973, says only that the 14th-century building resisted the fires and wars that have afflicted this lakeside city of 20,000 over the centuries.
"They don't go in for hype around here," says Sven Heussen, who runs a B&B across the canal from Merkel's childhood home. "There are people who remember her as a school friend, but nobody makes a fuss, they treat it as just something normal."
If Merkel has yet to make her mark on Templin, it certainly appears to have left its mark on her.
A centuries-old half-timbered house on the corner of Berliner Strasse and the old market square formerly housed the town's savings bank. Its facade is decorated with maxims urging hard work, sound finances and frugality that seem to form a foundation for the austerity solutions Merkel has imposed in response to Europe's financial crisis.
"Today's saver will be tomorrow's winner," says one. "Whoever saves performs a great social task," says another. "It's not what you earn, but what you save that makes you independent."
Barring a major upset, Merkel will be re-elected for a third term as chancellor when Germany goes to the polls on Sept. 22.
After eight years in office, her personal approval rating tops 60 percent.
Her popularity outstrips her party’s, the center-right Christian Democratic Union, which — together with its sister party in the southern state of Bavaria — is expected to win the elections. It's currently polling more than 40 percent compared to around 25 percent for its main rival, the opposition Social Democratic Party, the SPD.
Merkel's stated preference is for the CDU to remain in its current governing coalition with the pro-business Free Democratic Party, the FPD, but they are lagging in the polls behind the Greens and the Left Party.
That means she may have to partner up with the Social Democrats in a so-called grand coalition as in her first term.
The only slim hope the Social Democrats have of unseating Merkel would be to team up with the Greens and the Left — something they’ve refused to countenance because of the Left's associations with the former East German Communist regime.
Few experts believe the SPD has any chance of returning to power in any scenario.
Merkel "enjoys popularity even among supporters of the opposition parties, it’s quite overwhelming," says Peter Matuschek, chief political analyst for the Berlin-based polling company Forsa. "No matter what coalition will be formed, right now it's almost impossible that the Social Democrats will lead the next government."
Merkel ascended to her current position as the dominant politician of her generation in Germany and Europe from a position of outsider.
She is the first female to lead a country where women are under-represented in politics and business compared to many of its European neighbors. She’s the first chancellor to come from the former East Germany, which remains economically disadvantaged more than 20 years since re-unification.
Her background as a small-town girl who waited tables to help pay her way while studying to become a physicist sets her apart from the insider world of big-shot lawyers, economists and career politicians at the heart of the political establishment.
Merkel kept her head down under communism. She learned Russian and traveled widely inside the old Soviet Bloc, and only entered politics in the late 1980s when the Communist regime crumbled with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Postwar Germans tend to like their leaders uncharismatic, and the values Merkel picked up in her rural youth — combined with the scientific background that encourages a pragmatic, step-by-step approach to problem-solving — helped mold a political