German election: Angela Merkel ahead of SPD and Martin Schulz in opinion poll

Germany decides in less than a month whether to give German chancellor Angela Merkel one more term. The latest poll puts the CDU ahead - and sees the right-wing AfD as the third largest political force.

The German federal election is reaching its critical stage. On Sunday evening Chancellor Angela Merkel and her main election rival Martin Schulz will face off in a live
television debate

Half of German voters are expected to tune it as the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) chancellor and the challenger from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) go face-to-face over 90 minutes, according to polling institute Forsa.

Read more: German election: Wahl-O-Mat App pairs voters with political parties

Many see this as Schulz's last chance to make a stand in the election.

The chances of that happening, however, appear slim. According to the latest Deutschlandtrend survey, almost two-thirds of voters believe Merkel will emerge triumphant from the debate, while only 17 percent trust Schulz to outperform the chancellor. Merkel even narrowly edges in among SPD voters. Supporters from all the other main parties - the CDU and its Bavarian sister-party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the free market, liberal Free Democrats (FDP), the Green party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Left party - also overwhelming see Merkel coming out on top.

Interestingly, the numbers closely reflect the same survey taken ahead of the 2009 television debate, when Merkel went up against the SDP's Frank-Walter Steinmeier. In 2013, the chancellor went into the debates in a much weaker starting position.

Infografik TV Duell voraussichtlicher Sieger ENG

When voters were asked to contrast Merkel and Schulz, the chancellor also maintained her direct advantage. Half of voters polled said they would elect her directly if given the chance, compared to Schulz, for whom only one-in-four would vote. The German chancellor, however, is not directly chosen by voters but elected by parliament.

Three-quarters of SPD voters said they would elect Schulz directly, if possible. The SPD challenger is, naturally, more popular among Left party supporters than Merkel. Perhaps surprisingly, however, that is not the case among the Green party fellowship.

Infografik Direktwahl Kanzler ENG

Neither candidate came out of the survey unscathed, however. Schulz's ratings plummeted to an all-time low, while Merkel's lead has also dropped by 8 points since reaching an all-time of 57 percent back in July.

Merkel and the liberals

So, which party is Merkel most likely to govern with if she wins a fourth term? According to the Infratest-Dimap polling institute, there's been a shift in voter opinion since the beginning of the year. Some 7 percent more voters hope to see a coalition made up of the conservative Union parties and the FDP, compared to back in April. Such a coalition is also favored heavily among the party's own supporter bases, with 77 percent of CDU/CSU and 88 FDP voters saying they would be pleased to return to the coalition the most recently governed Germany from 2009 to 2013.

Approval for a CDU/CSU-FDP coalition has clearly come at the expense of support for a second consecutive grand coalition, which has seen a 7-percent drop in support.

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Christian Democratic Union (CDU)

After three terms in office, Chancellor Angela Merkel is no stranger to election posters. With a budget of 20 million euros, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is pinning up some 22,000 placards across Germany. The use of a deconstructed German flag brings out the party's patriotism, while the main focus of slogans is on issues such as security, family and work.

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Social Democrats (SPD)

The Social Democrats are keeping it classic with their long-time red, square logo. Posters concentrate on topics such as education, family, pension, investment and wage inequality. At the end of their 24-million-euro campaign, the SPD is planning a final crusade ahead of election day, which still remains under wraps.

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Free Democratic Party (FDP)

More than 5 million euros have been spent on the liberal FDP's poster campaign. With their black and white photoshoot, the FDP have gone for thoroughly modern marketing, with one man at the center: Christian Lindner. Voters, however, will have a hard time reading the text heavy posters. "Impatience is also a virtue," reads the slogan.

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The Green Party

The Greens have remained faithful to their cause and focused on classic topics such as the environment, integration and peace. "Environment isn't everything. But without the environment, everything is nothing," says the slogan. A mainstay on all of the posters is the party's sunflower logo.

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Alternative for Germany (AfD)

The prize for most controversial placards goes, without doubt, to the right-wing AfD. From afar, the poster showing a smiling, pregnant woman seems innocent until the slogan becomes legible: "New Germans? We make them ourselves." In another poster, set against the background image of three bikini-clad women, the AfD asks: "Burkas? We like bikinis."

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The Left Party

The Left party have certainly given their best to use as many fonts as possible. In a combination of font and wordplay, this slogan one reads: "[Colorful] People. Decisively against right-wing hate." Affordable rents, fairer pensions and an end to arms exports are the main issues for the leftist party.

And what about an unprecedented coalition the CDU/CSU and the Green party? Support doesn't appear to be too strong, with approval numbers down by 5 percent.

Read more: The FDP's feisty Christian Lindner: the king of the kingmakers

Instead, the most-talked about coalition government right now is the possible link-up between the CDU/CSU, the FDP and the Green party, otherwise known as the Jamaica coalition as the parties' traditional colors are, like the Caribbean nation's flag, black (CDU), yellow (FDP) and green. According to the Deutschlandtrend survey, 27 percent of voters favorably view such a government.

The exact same percentage of voters would also welcome a left-leaning government made up of the SPD, the Left party and the Greens. But for that to happen, Schulz's SPD will have to win more seats in the Bundestag than Merkel's CDU.

Infografik Sonntagsfrage ENG

AfD: Germany's third party

In the so-called "Sunday question" - a traditional polling question that always asks which party people would vote for if the election were held the following Sunday - both the CDU/CSU and the FDP saw a 1-point gain in support. While a welcome boost, that wouldn't be enough for the two parties to form a coalition among themselves, and the SPD could still see a rise in support.

Were the Union parties and SPD to enter into a "grand coalition" once again, it would, according to polls, leave the right-wing populist AfD as the third-largest and main opposition party.

Such a proposition could see the CDU/CSU opt against going into government with the Social Democrats - if only to keep them as the main opposition party. That would carry certain advantages, for example when it comes to appointing committees and parliamentary speakers.

Read more: German election: Third place the new first for smaller parties

How to explain this surge of support for the AfD? First, the party has launched a major online advertising campaign over social media in the run-up to the election. Second, from the party's viewpoint, candidate Alice Weidel has hardly made a misstep during the campaign, leaving the provocations to deputy leader Alexander Gauland. Her relatively clean image has also helped to cover up the in-party fighting between Gauland and AfD co-chair Frauke Petry.

Read more: Germany's AfD takes on Trump campaign-linked Harris Media for social media

Finally, the AfD used the most recent spate of terror attacks in Manchester, London and Barcelona as fuel for its anti-Merkel campaign. The party has also closely followed every step of the chancellor's campaign tour across Germany and mobilized loud protest groups at every location.

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Germany's big election year

The stakes are high for Germany's election year. With Chancellor Angela Merkel up for a fourth term and the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party attempting to cash in on anti-migrant sentiment, one thing is clear - German politics won't be the same by the end of 2017. Here's a look at the most important dates.

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March 26 - Saarland state parliament election

Germany's "super election year" kicked off in the small western state of Saarland, on the French border. Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) came out on top, snagging over 40 percent of the vote and securing a third term for state premier Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (L). The populist AfD will also enter Saarland's parliament for the first time after claiming 6.2 percent of the vote.

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May 7 - CDU victory in Schleswig-Holstein

State elections in northern Schleswig-Holstein saw Merkel's CDU overtaking the ruling Social Democrats (SPD) in a surprising upset. The CDU, led by top candidate Daniel Günther (above), won 32 percent of the vote while the SPD dropped three points to 27 percent. Anti-immigrant AfD will also enter the Schleswig-Holstein parliament after clearing the 5 percent hurdle.

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May 14 - All eyes on NRW election

The CDU pulled off one of it's biggest victories yet, unseating the SPD in its stronghold in North Rhine-Westphalia. The business-friendly FDP also made significant gains and the AfD will also enter parliament after getting 7 percent. As Germany's most populous state with around 18 million residents, the NRW poll is seen as a test run for how the federal election will play out in September.

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June 19 - Party applications due

The 97th day before the election is the cut off date for any party to announce its intention to run for the Bundestag. They have to submit their applications by 6 p.m. to the Federal Returning Officer. Roderich Egeler (above) oversees the election and heads Germany's Statistical Office.

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July 7 - Who is allowed in?

On the 79th day before the election, the parties that are allowed to take part in the election are announced by the Federal Returning Officer. If a party does not agree with decision, it has four days to file a complaint with Germany's Constitutional Court.

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July 17 - Who made the list?

Political parties in Germany have until the 69th day before the election to determine which candidates will be running in which constituency. These representatives make up the first vote on Germany's split ballot. Parties must also submit a list of candidates for the party vote on the second half of the ballot.

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July 27 - Fighting for a spot on the ballot

Smaller parties that filed a suit with the Constitutional Court to be allowed to take part in the election will receive their verdicts today. This option has only been available since the last Bundestag election in 2013. At that time, 11 parties petitioned the court to appear on the ballot - but none were successful.

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August 13 - Campaigning officially begins

Unlike other countries, parties in Germany cannot put up campaign posters or run TV ads until 6 weeks before the election. But on August 13, the campaign floodgates open and no lamp post will be safe from the cardboard visages of each party's main candidates.

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August 20 - Who can vote?

A little over one month shy of the election, the most important list is compiled - the electoral register or voter list. In Germany, every citizen who is 18 years or older can vote in the general election - meaning there are 61.5 million eligible voters this year.

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September 3 - Three weeks to go

At this point, all eligible voters should have recieved an authorization certificate in the mail. People who aren't already on the voter list still have time to register. Those who wish to vote-by-mail can request their ballot.

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September 18 - Prepping the polls

Less than a week to go and preparations are kicking into high gear. Ballots, polling booths and transport boxes start rolling in and election workers are trained. Local authorities must inform voters where they should go to vote. Residents can still register until 36 hours before the election.

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September 24 - Election day

The big day has finally arrived. Schools, gym halls and community centers are transformed as people arrive to cast their ballots. Polling stations open at 8:00 a.m. sharp and at 6:00 p.m. they close again. The votes are tallied and the Federal Returning Officer announces the preliminary results that same night.

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September 25 - Winners and Losers

Only after all of the representative and party votes are counted, the final result is announced. If a candidate did not win his or her constituency, they could still get a seat in the Bundestag if they made the party's regional list.

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October 24 - The 19th Bundestag convenes

The newly elected parliament must meet for the first time no later than one month after the election. Afterwards comes the tricky work of coalition negotiations, followed by a secret ballot to elect the next chancellor.

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November 24 - Everything fair-and-square?

If anyone wants to challenge the validity of the election, they have two months to do so. All voters, the state election overseers, the president of the Bundestag and the Federal Election Commissioner (above) are entitled to appeal the result.