German elections too close to call

September 24, 2009

Erik Kirschbaum– Erik Kirschbaum is a Reuters correspondent in Berlin. –

Has this been dullest German election campaign in decades or the most exciting?  Has the battle for power in Berlin between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier that concludes with Sunday’s election been a memorable showdown or a forgettably boring contest?

Many journalists, pundits and voters have complained it’s all been a merciless bore compared to the high-octane battles of the past with little action and precious few highlights.

But I would argue that in many ways it has been one of the most interesting campaigns in decades. Why? Because the outcome is so uncertain and there are more different government possibilities that could result from it than at any time in Germany’s post-war history.

Instead of the usual centre-right or centre-left choice that German voters had for the last 60 years, there are options galore this time — at least in theory.

There could be a centre-right government, another grand coalition or several three-way coalitions that could include the Free Democrats, the Greens and from a purely  mathematical point of view even the Left party that have never been tried before at the federal level.

On top of that, the opinion polls have once again tracked a dramatic narrowing in the lead that Merkel’s preferred centre-right coalition (Conservative  Christian Democrats  and Free Democrats) have over the three other parties — Social Democrats, Greens and Left party .

In late August Merkel’s centre-right had a 6-7 point lead and now, three days before the election, the final published polls on Wednesday showed their lead all but evaporated to just 1-2 points. Pollsters estimate that about 20 percent of the electorate has not yet made up their minds who they’ll vote for — how can  a completely uncertain outcome on Sunday not be considered exciting?

And yet Sunday’s election could also be historic for another reason — it might be the first time two parties take power despite failing to win a majority of regular seats in parliament.

Thanks to a quirk in the German election law, the conservatives could possibly win up as many as 20 extra “overhang” seats that could help them turn a deficit as wide as three percentage points into a parliamentary majority.

Whether such a government would be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the opposition and public remains to be seen.

Admittedly, there’s been few memorable verbal clashes between the main candidates this time around. This is the sixth election I’ve covered in Germany and I can’t remember seeing rivals for the chancellery ever behave with so much civility towards each other as his time around. But

I guess that should have been expected — they’ve shared power as Chancellor and Vice Chancellor in the grand coalition for the last four years. To suddenly start bashing each other probably would not have gone down well with voters and in the midst of the country’s worst post-war crisis I doubt there is much appetite  among the German Buerger  for mudslinging.

Both parties also warned us all along that the race would be concentrated into the final weeks  due to the growing number of late-deciders and undecideds — especially after the conservatives saw big leads disappear at the very end of the campaign in 2002 and 2005.

Der Spiegel nevertheless had an unusual theory — Merkel is deliberately trying to bore the voters to hold voter turnout down because she thinks it will help her. Few would disagree that she is not the most gifted campaigner Germany has ever had.

Certainly, there’s been none of the great “war and peace” battles of past elections that stirred voters against the backdrop of a Cold War, a Berlin Wall, and then a looming war in Iraq. In 2002 then-SPD chancellor Gerhard Schroeder shrewdly managed to turn his doomed campaign around by running against German involvement in the looming U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Frightened Germans turned to him in huge numbers and he pulled off an improbable comeback after being given up for dead just a month before. And who could forget the SPD’s next comeback in 2005 when Schroeder turned a humble professor from the University of Heidelberg into an unlikely villian after Merkel picked him as her shadow Finance Minister for his academic-sounding ideas on simplifying the tax code.  But turnout will nevertheless still be close to 80 percent.

This year’s election has also had its lighter moments.

One CDU candidate with little hope of winning her constituency in Berlin tried out the slogan “sex sells” by putting out a poster of herself and Angela Merkel highlighting their cleavage, a SPD minister had her official limousine stolen while she was on a holiday in Spain and it watched in horror as it erupted into a major issue, and a comedian who instantly became more popular than some of the smaller parties.merkel_lengsfeld

So who will win Sunday’s election? We couldn’t even venture a guess here. But we will keep you well informed of all the twists and turns on Sunday.

It will likely be a cliffhanger right up until moment the first exit polls are announced at 6 p.m. on Sunday and perhaps beyond. We’ll be posting live updates right here on the Global News blog all day and all night Sunday.

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