Germany's Candidates Sprint Down to Wire

THE polls are predicting a close race in Germany's federal election this Sunday, meaning the pols are taking nothing for granted.

``Everything is open. We won't be able to tell until the end,'' replied Ludger Volmer, a leader of the eco-leftist Greens, when asked about his party's election chances.

The Oct. 16 election is pivotal for Germany and important for Europe. Germany possesses the Continent's largest economy, and the future decisions taken by Bonn will influence the choices made by other European states, especially as the European Union pushes ahead with its federalist experiment.

The next government will face the challenge of setting the nation's course for the next millennium. Adapting to rapid technological changes while maintaining high living standards will require political stability, vision, and determination.

But changes might not be what voters want. Precedent shows that incumbency definitely has its advantages in German elections. Since the federal republic's foundation in 1949, the electorate has never voted a sitting chancellor out of office.

Accordingly, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's conservative Christian Democrats are universally expected to garner more votes than any other party. Polls peg its support at about 42 percent. A year ago, Mr. Kohl's popularity was low and his reelection prospects seemed dim, but Germany's unexpectedly strong economic recovery this year has revived the chancellor's fortunes.

But Kohl says there is little reason to feel his reelection to a fourth, four-year term is a foregone conclusion.

``We are fighting for every vote,'' he said at a recent campaign rally. ``There are a number [of supporters] who have a feeling it's all decided - which I don't like at all. Nothing is decided.''

Kohl's main source of concern isn't his own Christian Democratic Union, but his junior coalition partners, the Free Democratic Party (FDP).

The Free Democrats have suffered a series of disastrous defeats in German state elections this year, and the party is in danger of not garnering the required 5 percent of the vote to win seats in the federal parliament, or Bundestag.

Most polls say the Free Democrats should win between 5 percent and 8 percent of Sunday's vote. But there are plenty of politicians and political observers who question the accuracy of the public opinion data.

``The real poll results are locked away during the election year and the prepared ones are published as part of a stage-managed campaign,'' wrote political analyst Gunter Hoffman in the Die Zeit weekly.

If the Free Democrats clear the 5 percent hurdle and remain in the Bundestag, Kohl's current government coalition will likely remain in place. If the FDP falls short of 5 percent, it would probably mean the formation of a ``grand coalition,'' joining Kohl's Christian Democrats with the left-leaning Social Democrats, the present-day main opposition party.

The formation of a grand coalition, however, is something that few leading politicians say they favor. ``As a rule, a grand coalition means stagnation and encourages radical fringe parties and protest movements,'' Social Democrat leader Rudolf Scharping told Der Tagesspiegel newspaper.

Another factor that will influence the composition of the next government is the performance of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the former East German Communists. The PDS isn't expected to win 5 percent of the national vote.

BUT the party has good chances to win three constituency races in the former East Germany, where voters choose specific candidates rather than state their party preference. And if it succeeds in winning three first-past-the-post votes, Germany's complicated election rules entitle the party to proportional representation in the Bundestag, even if it is below 5 percent.

If the PDS wins 30 or so seats in the Bundestag, it could prevent Kohl's coalition from gaining a parliamentary majority, whether or not the FDP wins 5 percent.

In the event of FDP failure and PDS success, the Social Democrats might be tempted into an attempt to form a governing coalition with the Greens. Polls put SDP support at about 35 percent and the Greens at about 8 percent.

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