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Will German voter doubts undermine Merkel's coalition hopes?

New poll indicates Merkel’s desire for center-right government may be out of reach as Sept. 27 election looms.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 22, 2009

German Chancellor and Christian Democratic Union leader Angela Merkel speaks Tuesday during an election campaign rally in Heide. A general election in Germany and regional state elections in Schleswig-Hollstein will be held on September 27.

Christian Charisius/REUTERS

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Berlin

"A vote for assurance": It's German Chancellor Angela Merkel's campaign poster on the streets of Berlin, with the world figure who has led Germany for four years sporting a purple top, looking maternal and wise. Ahead of Sunday's national elections here – the slogan appears to be truth in advertising, since there's little doubt she'll be returned to power, polls show.

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Yet apart from Mrs. Merkel's hold on the top job, little else is as clear about an election that, despite the chancellor's conscious attempt to keep it dull and comforting, has many Germans quite undecided about their vote and political analysts baffled about what the next government will look like.

Will the current blurry "grand coalition" of the right and left, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), continue on – despite a popular feeling that it lacks direction and a capacity for change? (In TV debates last week, Merkel and SPD leader and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier were so congenial that a journalist described them as "sounding like an old married couple.")

Or will Merkel achieve her desired "center-right" government with the pro-business, tax cut Liberal Party (FDP) – whose leader, Guido Westerwelle, would become Germany's first openly gay foreign minister?

A new poll obtained by the Monitor and to be published Wednesday, shows that this may not be possible.

Don't know how I'll note

Polls show a full 25 percent of Germans remain unsure about their choice – up from 17 percent in the last election. In a country where votes were long decided on party loyalty, just over 40 percent say they know how they will cast a ballot.

"Many [Germans] aren't going to decide until three hours before. About 20 percent to a third of voters are undecided. That's a huge figure," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst affiliated with Berlin's Free University.

That 'left' looks like 'center' to many

The traditional-left SPD has moved so far to the center, mirroring policies of the CDU, that it has ceased to inspire, Mr. Neugebauer says: "The SDP has not been discussing their basic concept of social justice, so people are migrating to parties where the concept is sharper."

Smaller parties include: the Greens; the surprisingly robust former East German Communist party now called Die Linke, which is the only party calling for German troops to leave Afghanistan; and the single-issue Pirate party, popular among youths, devoted to Internet freedom and security, at 1 percent.

Five percent is required for participation in parliament.

Among a half-dozen Berliners interviewed on the street, none was sure about their vote.

"What I'm sure about is that I don't want another 'grand coalition,' " says Alexander Kraft, on his way to work at a downtown corporation. "The coalition is weder fisch noch fleisch [neither fish nor meat]. I don't know what to choose."

Stefan Thiel, a student at the Technical University of Berlin who works at the Einstein Cafe in Berlin's center, isn't sure, either.

"If you don't go for one of the large parties, it is very hard," he says. "For my generation, there's the Pirate party. The generation I grew up in cares a lot about computers and secure data. I'm thinking about voting for them, but it might be a waste of a voice if they don't make it to parliament, and I don't think they will. So it's hard."

New poll: Merkel's party drops further

Of course, polls can be unreliable because of the undecided factor. In local elections last month, Die Linke, with its charismatic figures of Oscar La Fontaine in the west, and Gregor Gysi in the east – spiked up, unbeknownst to analysts.

Tomorrow's poll, obtained from Handlesblatt, the financial German daily, shows Merkel's CDU dropping another point to 34 percent; the FDP, Merkel's coalition choice, is at 12 percent – short of the 48 needed. The SPD has climbed to 27 percent, low for a big-tent "volkspartie." Die Linke rose two points to 12; the Green's dropped to 10.

Earlier this week, the FDP ruled out a coalition with the left. Mr. Westerwelle described the left's politics as "scenarios for infants." The FDP loyalty pledge to the CDU removed the last scenario that could conceivably push Merkel from power.

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