BERLIN Chancellor Angela Merkel will most likely have little trouble winning a third term in 2013 because the center-left opposition lacks a candidate with enough appeal to defeat her, a leading German pollster said Tuesday.
Manfred Guellner, managing director of the Forsa polling institute, said the euro zone debt crisis would not harm Merkel's chances even though she has been blamed for exacerbating the turmoil by dithering early on.
"I don't see anyone on the horizon who could seriously endanger Merkel," Guellner, whose polls were the most accurate in forecasting Germany's 2002, 2005 and 2009 election results, told Reuters in an interview.
"She's respected across party lines and has excellent popularity ratings."
Merkel's conservatives (CDU/CSU) are polling about 31 percent in Forsa surveys while the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) are at 27 percent. The SPD hope to form a coalition with the Greens, polling 16 percent.
Merkel's current partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), are on 3 percent -- below the 5 percent threshold needed for seats in parliament -- after winning 14.6 percent in 2009.
Guellner said there is little chance of the CDU/CSU-FDP coalition holding power beyond 2013. The most likely outcome would be a grand coalition of CDU/CSU-SPD with a CDU/CSU-Greens coalition the second most likely result, he said.
"The SPD and Greens are not going to win enough for a majority," Guellner said. Polls earlier this year showed the SPD and Greens with enough for a majority but that dissolved in recent months. Both will be far behind the CDU/CSU, he said.
The SPD has three possible challengers -- SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel, parliamentary floor leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier and former Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck.
But Guellner said none of them had a chance against Merkel.
Steinbrueck has been billed as the leading contender in recent months because he is a centrist in the left-leaning party who could lure voters away from Merkel's conservatives, even though the SPD's left wing is firmly opposed to his candidacy.
"The SPD has zero chance with Steinbrueck," said Guellner, noting that his appeal to centrist voters is more than negated by opposition from those who remember his mixed performance as finance minister in Merkel's grand coalition.
All three SPD candidates have lost their most important elections -- Steinbrueck to the CDU in North-Rhine Westphalia in 2005, Gabriel to the CDU in Lower Saxony in 2003 and Steinmeier, the federal election against Merkel in 2009.
"None of those three candidates has much of a chance," Guellner said. However, he noted that Gabriel had gained stature as SPD chairman and there was a possibility that his standing among voters could rise further.
"If the SPD picks one of those three then Merkel will quite clearly be ahead of them all in 2013," he said.
Guellner said the euro zone crisis, which has contributed to CDU election defeats in seven states this year, was not hurting Merkel at all.
"It's abstract and few understand what it's all about," he said. "Who could possibly know what all this talk of 'leveraging' is all about?
"Yet people see Merkel is out there working hard on it and that earns their respect."
Guellner said the crisis was feeding into concern about monetary instability but Merkel gets no blame for that.
"People worry about monetary stability and social welfare, and whether there will be enough money to fix potholes, or paint classrooms or fix broken toilets in schools," he said.
"But the bigger issues are for the most part above everyone's heads. It's not hurting Merkel."
(Reporting by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Robert Woodward)