Germans go to the polls on September 22 to elect a new Bundestag and ruling party or coalition of parties. The latest German polls show Chancellor Angela Merkel's incumbent Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and her partner, the Christian Social Union, likely to emerge victorious. Still in question is whether these conservatives can rule alone or will need a coalition partner for a legislative majority, and if that coalition will be a grand coalition with the Social Democrats.
To date, the campaign has largely been a referendum on Merkel's leadership since she became Germany's chancellor in 2005. With an economy that is outperforming most others in Europe and an unemployment rate of just 5.4 percent -- about half that of France's and a fifth of Spain's -- 75 percent of Germans think the economy is doing well, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in March. Little wonder that economic performance under the Merkel-led government has not been a major electoral issue. With growth, joblessness, and inflation of limited concern to German voters, inequality has emerged as a sleeper campaign topic. The Social Democrats have pledged quick action on instituting a national minimum wage and higher taxes on top earners as a means of currying favor with voters.
They may be on to something. Roughly half of Germans (51 percent) think the rich-poor gap is a "very big" problem, showing far greater concern than that evidenced for public debt (37 percent), rising prices (31 percent) or a lack of employment opportunities (28 percent). And 88 percent of Germans say inequality has increased in the last five years. Possibly most significantly, a 42 percent plurality believes that the gap between the rich and the poor should be the government's highest economic priority.
The inequality issue has salience across various demographic groups in Germany.
Women, in particular, think that the gap between the rich and the poor is a "very big" problem. One reason may be that they simply make far less money than men. Germany has the third largest gender pay gap -- 22.2 percent -- in Europe, exceeded only by that in Estonia and Austria, according to Eurostat. While such wage inequality can be attributed to many factors -- pay practices of firms, differences in the occupations and activities that tend to be male- or female-dominated, differences in the degrees to which men and women work on a part-time basis -- the effect is the same: lower pay and frustration with inequality.
As might be expected, low-income Germans (64 percent) are much more likely than high-income Germans (39 percent) to think the rich-poor gap is a major issue. But notably more than half of middle-income Germans (54 percent ) are worried about inequality.
Moreover, such concerns have created a widespread perception within Germany that the current economic system favors the wealthy. About eight-in-ten low-income Germans (81 percent) think the system is unfair. What is striking is that two-thirds of high-income Germans agree with them.