GERMANY'S political stage is so crowded with democrats of all shapes and sizes that keeping the cast straight can be confusing.
On the center-right are Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats. The left-leaning Social Democrats are their chief antagonists. And the Democratic Socialists, East Germany's former Communists, have gained new prominence from recent successes in local elections.
Meanwhile, out of the limelight is the centrist Free Democrat Party (FDP), the junior partner in Mr. Kohl's governing coalition and the traditional kingmaker party of German politics.
As the October election draws nearer, polls put support for the Free Democrats at around 5 percent. In Germany, a party needs 5 percent or more of the vote to win seats in Parliament.
Should the FDP fail to clear that hurdle, the implications for German politics could be far-reaching. Over the years, the liberal FDP has joined with both major parties - the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats - to form the stable governments. That political stability helped make possible Germany's recovery from World War II and is also a factor in the country's current economic prowess.
The FDP ``is a force that drags both major parties toward the center,'' says Manfred Richter, the party's whip in the Bundestag, or lower chamber of Parliament. The party's leader, Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel, has called the FDP the ``guarantor of moderation and reason for both internal and external German politics.''
Taken at these leaders' words, a Bundestag without the FDP might deprive a post-October government of the proper ballast, meaning Germany's passage into the 21st century could get a little rough.
An FDP failure could saddle post-October Germany with, most likely, an unstable coalition, or, possibly, a divisive majority government. Neither variant would be especially well-suited to tackling the country's major issues, particularly industrial competitiveness and social-welfare reform.
A potentially dangerous byproduct of an unstable government could be a rise in popularity of small, radical parties now lingering in the wings on both the left and right of the German stage. Though Germany's Basic Law ensures that there is virtually no prospect for a repeat of the Weimar Republic experience - when Adolf Hitler's Nazis exploited a fractious legislature to rise to power - the possibility of increased radicalism in post-cold-war German politics is still unsavory to many here.
IN the global context, a Germany hampered by some degree of political stalemate could set back attempts at European Union integration. It would also deal a blow to the Clinton administration's desire to see Germany play a greater role in maintaining European stability, thus allowing the United States to concentrate its dwindling resources on other global trouble spots.
Recent election results would seem to portend a worst-case scenario for the FDP. In the June 12 vote for the EU Parliament - which was viewed by some here as a test run for the October German elections - the FDP fell flat on its face, not even coming close to hurdling the 5 percent barrier.
Local elections held in late June in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt produced the same result: The FDP won less than 5 percent and was pushed out of the local legislature.
To a great extent, FDP leaders themselves were responsible for the political mauling. In the early months of 1994, the party gained a reputation for being marionettes of the Christian Democrats, doing nothing but mouthing the Kohl party line.
Mr. Kinkel and company merely reinforced this impression at the FDP's party convention in early June. During the gathering the FDP party faithful appeared to close off their post-October options, voting overwhelmingly to tie their fate to Kohl's fortunes in October.
In the June elections, voters sensed there was little to differentiate the FDP from the Christian Democrats and seemed inclined to vote for the real thing instead of the smaller imitation.
Now, FDP is frantically trying to change appearances, doing everything it can to reestablish distinct policy positions.
``If you try to sell government policy as party policy, you get in trouble,'' Mr. Richter says of the FDP's past miscues.
``We will campaign more as a single entity,'' he continues. ``We must make clear to the voters what we would do if we won 51 percent of the vote in October.''
Richter also admits that if the FDP is to mount a successful comeback - winning enough votes not just to get into Parliament, but also to maintain a stable government - it will rely on many Germans who may not agree with the party's positions, but who vote for it for the sake of predictable continuity.
Preliminary indications show that the FDP's tactical shift is producing results. The most recent polls put its support above 5 percent. Richter tries to downplay the drama, saying the FDP has always dallied with the 5 percent threshold in German elections.
``I'm absolutely positive we'll be in the national Parliament,'' he says.