GERMANY'S marathon election year gets under way Sunday with legislative elections in the northern state of Lower Saxony.
In Hannover, the state capital, the streets are full of campaign posters, with both of the major candidates for the post of Lower Saxony's prime minister trying to project a confident image.
The slogan of the Social Democratic candidate - incumbent Prime Minister Gerhard Schroder - is ``to listen, to decide, to act.'' His youthful Christian Democratic challenger, Christian Wulff, appears as an inset of a poster dominated by the image of Konrad Adenauer, the Christian Democratic chancellor from 1949-63, with the phrase, ``It's time again to act.''
The Lower Saxony election results are sure to be closely examined for portents of things to come on Oct. 16, when national elections are to be held.
But while the campaign rhetoric here is all about decisiveness and action, many political observers say it is not clear whether the Lower Saxony results will actually provide an answer to the question on everyone's mind: Who will rule in Bonn following the October federal elections?
``It could be that we are a trendsetter,'' says Thea Duckert, the leader of the Greens party in the Lower Saxony legislature. ``This is a time of great change, yet no one is sure of what will happen. This could give us a feeling for the trend.''
Others caution against jumping to conclusions based on the Lower Saxony results. ``There are still six or seven months to go [until October] and a lot can still happen,'' says Gudrun Kopp, a Lower Saxony legislator and a local leader of the Free Democratic Party.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrat-led coalition government in Bonn appears in precarious shape. Recent polls show that if national elections were held now, the Christian Democrats would receive roughly 33 percent of the vote, while the opposition Social Democrats (SPD), led by Rudolf Scharping, would poll about 38 percent.
In Lower Saxony, the SPD is expected to handily defeat the Christian Democrat Union (CDU), with a Schroder-led government remaining in power. As for the national implications, probably the most important question is the margin of victory.
A landslide that has the Social Democrats winning between 45 percent and 50 percent could mean big problems for Chancellor Kohl. ``If the CDU doesn't do well here, Kohl will be the real loser, not Christian Wulff,'' Ms. Duckert says.
If the Social Democrats fail to climb much above the 40 percent level, it would be an encouraging sign for the Christian Democrats, political analysts say.
In all likelihood, the Social Democrats will fail to gain an overall majority, and thus will have to govern in a coalition with one of the smaller mainstream parties. The SPD's choice of coalition partner could prove a move that causes political observers to take notice.
Since the last state election in 1990, the SPD's junior partner in the Lower Saxony government has been the Greens, the pacifist environmental movement of the 1980s that is vying to enter the political mainstream in the '90s.
Though it is the first so-called ``red-green'' coalition that has survived a full term in office, politicians here speak openly about friction in the Lower Saxony alliance. The two parties have significant differences in several areas, particularly when it comes to how Germany should handle foreign immigration. The SPD has supported the tightening of border controls, while the Greens advocate a more open policy.
Talk is thick in Hannover about a possible coalition switch, in which the SPD would join forces with the centrist Free Democrats. On the national level, the Free Democrats are part of Kohl's governing coalition. But the party has also served in coalitions under Social Democratic chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt in the 1970s and early 1980s.
An effective SPD-Free Democrat coalition in Lower Saxony could raise interest about such a post-October configuration in Bonn, says Mathias Brandt, manager of the Free Democratic legislative faction in Lower Saxony.
But before a SPD-Free Democrat coalition can even be contemplated in Lower Saxony, the centrists must receive 5 percent of the vote - the level required to gain seats in the legislature. Free Democrat officials are confident of clearing the 5 percent barrier, but others are doubtful.
Drop the Greens?
Mr. Brandt, the legislator, says that if the Social Democrats want to come to power in Bonn, they should abandon the Greens. ``If the SPD continues the coalition with the Greens here ... it could hurt their chances [in October],'' he says, adding that most mainstream Germans remain wary of the Greens' policies.
At their recent party convention, the Greens endorsed a program that included a call for the dissolution of the German Army and NATO. In doing so, Brandt says, ``the Greens have said `goodbye' to rational politics.''
Kohl in recent weeks has played on popular suspicions of the Greens, warning that if a red-green coalition came to power in Bonn it would destabilize Germany. But Greens such as Duckert scoff at such attacks.
``Four years ago in Lower Saxony, they warned people that it [a red-green coalition] would be a disaster, but it hasn't come to pass,'' she says. ``We may have alternative policies, but we haven't made a mess of things.''