We've got our own election happening this weekend but there's also a hugely important one happening in Europe.

If you're searching for the opposite of last year's loud, long and controversial American election, look no further than Germany.

On Sunday night NZT, voters there will head to the polls in a crucial yet strangely quiet election.

The two main contenders, conservative incumbent Angela Merkel and social democrat Martin Schulz, held only one TV debate, in which many of the key issues went undiscussed. And with the vote still days away, German parties are preparing to collaborate after the election rather than emphasising their differences to sway the undecided.


Why should you care?

The campaign has been quiet, but the results will still probably be a watershed moment in German history. No far-right party has managed to send delegates to the German Parliament since the defeat of the Nazis in 1945. That will almost certainly change: the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party will likely make significant gains.

How will the election likely affect the world?

Germany is the European Union's most populous nation and its economic powerhouse, and its two leading parties agree that Germany should stand against many of the policies pursued by US President Donald Trump, especially on trade and immigration.

Another Merkel victory could strengthen her position in any future negotiations with the Trump Administration, while an unlikely win for the social democrats would probably widen the transatlantic rift further.

Who are the main contenders?

There are six major-party candidates for the chancellor's office, but only two have a real chance to win. Chancellor Angela Merkel - often half-jokingly called "Mutti," or "mother," by many Germans - has led the country for 12 years and is virtually assured of another victory. Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, is a former scientist with a doctorate in physical chemistry. She is also the first female chancellor.

In contrast, Martin Schulz's background is rather unusual in German politics, in which academic titles and educational achievements often decide careers. Schulz is a high school dropout from a working-class family who has openly discussed his battle with alcoholism. Before running against Merkel, he was the head of the European Parliament.

Martin Schulz and Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2013 when he was European Parliament President. Photo / AP
Martin Schulz and Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2013 when he was European Parliament President. Photo / AP

How does the voting work?

The German system is familiar to New Zealanders.

A German voter casts two votes - to choose his or her district's representative in Parliament and to choose which party that voter most prefers.

Half of the members of the Bundestag - the Lower House of Parliament - are elected through the first, direct vote. The rest of the chamber is then filled in by giving the parties at-large seats in line with the results of the second vote. If a party earns 10 per cent of the second vote, for example, it will get enough at-large seats to make up 10 per cent of the Bundestag.

Parties need to gain at least 5 per cent of the overall vote or at least three directly elected seats to be represented in Parliament.

How will Merkel become chancellor if her party wins?

Polls say Merkel's party will win the most votes but not an outright majority. If that result holds, Merkel, as party leader, will start talks with other parties to form a governing coalition.

Coalition talks could last anywhere from days to months. When an agreement has been reached, the new ruling parties vote the chancellor into office in the Bundestag.

Which coalitions are most likely, based on recent polls?

A "grand coalition":

Many Germans say they would prefer a continuation of the current "grand coalition" between Merkel's centre-right Christian Democrats (and their Bavarian sister party), or CDU, and the centre-left Social Democratic Party, or SPD. It is the broadest-possible consensus between the two strongest mainstream blocs.

The CDU plus one or both of the libertarian Free Democrats and the Green Party:

Merkel could also enter a coalition with either the libertarian Free Democratic Party, or FDP, or the Green Party. There are some caveats, though: The FDP was Merkel's coalition partner from 2009 to 2013. Afterwards, they were voted out of Parliament altogether. Many blamed the FDP's weakness as Merkel's junior partner for the party's subsequent historic losses. The Green Party has lost significant voter support recently.

A non-Merkel coalition:

Depending on the strength of the Social Democratic Party and a possible failure by Merkel to convince other parties to govern with her, there could also be a coalition without her.
Theoretically, the Social Democrats could form a left-wing government with the Green Party, the Left Party and perhaps even the FDP. But giving power to the Left Party, a descendant of the former East German Communist Party, has long been treated as a non-starter.