German election: Right-wing party's poll surge puts political establishment on edge

German election: Right-wing party's poll surge puts political establishment on edge

German election: Right-wing party's poll surge puts political establishment on edge

Updated 24 September 2017, 12:10 AEST

Alternative for Germany's sudden rise could make life a bit more complicated for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe correspondent James Glenday writes.

In shops and cafes in central Berlin, the race for third place in Sunday's German election is a hot topic of conversation.

Third place is not usually a focus in election campaigns.

But with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative bloc well out in front and Martin Schulz's Social Democrats performing poorly in second, the fight for bronze has taken on a whole new meaning.

It is still too close to call.

In recent months four minor parties have all seemed in with a chance of snatching the third spot.

But surveys suggest it's the right-wing nationalist group Alternative for Germany (AfD) — Alternative fuer Deutschland in German — that's surged in the dying days of the campaign.

Most leading pollsters now expect it will finish with a double-digit share of the vote.

AfD's rise could make Merkel's life harder

That may make life slightly more complicated for Ms Merkel for two reasons.

First, the German electoral system almost always throws up coalition Governments.

If AfD eats into her party's vote or the vote of two minor parties, the Free Democrats and The Greens, then her coalition options become narrower.

The Chancellor may ultimately have no choice but to form another "grand coalition" with the second-placed Social Democrats.

This could make AfD the largest opposition party in parliament, providing it with a new platform to promote its policies.

Second, if AfD does better than expected, Ms Merkel will again face pressure from the right flank of her party to absorb elements of the group's less controversial plans.

Why is AfD attracting voters?

AfD election posters promise to prioritise bikinis over burqas and populate Germany through pregnancies, not immigration.

Some of its members have provoked outrage this year. One, Bjorn Hocke, referred to Berlin's holocaust memorial as a "monument of shame".

But the group's always done best when its focussed on Europe's asylum seeker crisis.

The AfD's plans to close the borders, ban the burqa and put Germans first appear to have resonated in some areas of the country, particularly the former communist east.

Successive surveys have shown immigration, integration and social inequality are front of mind for voters.

But perhaps its best asset in recent weeks has been its "outsider" status in a bland campaign where the overall result has never seemed in doubt.

Only AfD and the socialist Die Linke are vehemently opposed to the Chancellor.

Both say a vote for them will send a message to the political establishment in Berlin, which is often accused of being too cosy.

"It's going to be a huge shake up when the AfD are elected. The discourse in the parliament will change", says Matthias Fatke, a political scientist from Ludwig Maximilian University.

"But they will be sidelined and no-one will compromise with them.

"The Linke has found this out in this current parliament."

Still the major parties would much rather see the Alternative for Germany slip out of medal contention altogether.

During their final campaign events both Ms Merkel and Mr Schulz have urged voters not to back the group, suggesting they believe the race for third place is still wide open.