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Germany: Polling Begins In Neck-And-Neck National Election

  • Roland Eggleston

Germans go to the polls on 22 September to elect a new government. Today's opinion polls indicate a neck-and-neck race between the present coalition, led by Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and Christian Democratic challenger Edmund Stoiber. Some experts speculate Schroeder might need the former East German Communist Party to form a new administration, although he has said repeatedly that he will not do so.

Munich, 20 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Three public-opinion polls published today in Germany suggest a neck-and-neck race between incumbent Gerhard Schroeder and challenger Edmund Stoiber that could keep the outcome of the election unknown until the last minute.

The fourth poll gives a slight lead to the present Social Democrat government, based partly on popular support for Schroeder's decision not to join any military attack against Iraq.

The polls indicate that support for the two main parties, the Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian Democrats (CDU), and their potential coalition partners is so closely balanced that a swing of just a few percentage points could make all the difference.

The closeness of the race suggests that the turnout for the voting could be a crucial factor. At the last national election in 1998, it was 82.2 percent. The weather forecast for polling day is heavy rain, which could keep many voters at home. Commentators differ on which parties would benefit most if this happens.

Today, leading politicians crisscrossed the country, speaking at rally after rally, trying to win over the last of the undecided voters. Political experts believe the number of undecideds has sunk from 30 percent two weeks ago to no more than 5 or 6 percent.

The secretary-general of the SPD, Franz Munterfering, said today his party had regained the support of the voters after falling back in the summer. "We were a long way behind, but we have now recovered, and I believe we have our nose in front. And now in the last days, we appeal [to the voters] to give a clear mandate to Gerhard Schroeder," Munterfering said.

The election platforms of both major parties are similar. Both promise measures to reduce unemployment greatly from the current 9.6 percent of the labor force. Stoiber told the "Neuen Ruhr Zeitung" that his goal as chancellor would be to bring this down to about 7 percent. Schroeder has not set any goals. When he won election in 1998, he promised to bring unemployment down to 3.5 percent but came close to that only in 2000.

The models the two parties offer for reviving the sluggish German economy also have many similarities.

In the past few days, Stoiber has come closer to Schroeder's approach on Iraq, though it falls short of Schroeder's total denial of support to the U.S. He told political rallies today that he rejects a unilateral attack on Iraq by the U.S. and would not allow U.S. bases on German soil to be used for such an offensive. He also strongly rejected the goal of regime change as a motive for invading Iraq.

The other main issue dividing Schroeder and Stoiber is immigration. Stoiber has declared that if he wins, he will replace the immigration law passed earlier this year. Stoiber wants stricter limits on the rate of immigration and greater efforts to integrate the 7.3 million foreigners already living in Germany. Stoiber argues that the problem of a declining population should instead be solved by policies that encourage families to have more children.

The secretary-general of the CDU, Laurenz Meyer, said he expects a photo finish between the two major parties but that he is sure the CDU will emerge victorious. "It will certainly be a photo finish between the major parties. But we believe we will be successful if we continue to push to the front the issues we have raised in the last few days," Meyer said.

A senior economist at Deka-bank, Andreas Scheuerle, is one of many who believes that regardless of who wins on 22 September, the next government will have to adopt austerity measures to control Germany's surging budget deficit. "I expect spending cuts, increased taxes, and other austerity measures," Scheuerle said today.

Scheuerle pointed out that Germany has promised the European Union to balance the budget by 2004 to avoid penalties. He said this means austerity measures are unavoidable.

Some economists estimate that Germany must cut spending by as much as 20 billion euros ($19.7 billion) to balance the budget by 2004. This amounts to about 3 percent of total federal, state, municipal, and welfare expenditures.

In view of this, most economists are skeptical about the promises both sides have made in the election campaign. Stoiber's promises would add about 21 billion euros to the budget, and the government has made promises in the same range. Most economists agree that the majority of the promises cannot be kept.

If Schroeder wins, he says he will renew the coalition with the Greens environmental party that has governed Germany for the past four years. Polls indicate that the Greens should just achieve the minimum 5 percent of the vote necessary to enter parliament.

On the other side, the Christian Democrats hope to form a coalition with the small-businessmen's party, the Free Democrats. Polls suggest the Free Democrats may win about 8 percent of the vote.

But there is another party that could play an important role: the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor party to the former East German Communist Party. All commentators agree that the PDS will find it difficult to keep the 36 seats it has in the present national parliament, but many believe it will at least be represented.

This could create a curious situation if there is an approximate balance between the present Social Democratic government and the opposition Christian Democrats. In those circumstances, the SPD could probably retain power with the use of the PDS votes. However, Schroeder has said several times during the election campaign that he would refuse another term in office if it depends on accepting votes from the PDS.

Earlier this month, however, the Infratest public-opinion institute asked voters if they believed Schroeder would abide by this promise in a time of need. The majority said they believed he would not keep his promise and would accept the support of the PDS to stay in power.

A quirk in the election law opens the way for the PDS to enter parliament even if it does not win the 5 percent minimum vote required for entry. The law says parties that fail to meet the 5 percent qualification can still enter parliament if they win at least three seats across the country. If they do this, other provisions of the complicated electoral law enable them to increase the number of seats. The PDS itself is confident that it will be represented in the new parliament.

In the closing days of the election campaign, the SPD was shaken by newspaper reports that Justice Minister Herta Daubler-Gmelin had drawn parallels between U.S. President George W. Bush and Adolf Hitler when discussing a possible attack on Iraq with a group of labor leaders. The reports appeared originally in a provincial daily. They drew sharp criticism from the United States, but Daubler-Gmelin said the original report was exaggerated. She said she had not compared personalities but only political methods and emphasized her respect for the U.S.

The Free Democratic party also gained unwanted headlines when its deputy chairman, Juergen Molleman, renewed criticisms of Israel and some members of the Jewish community in Germany. As a result, he was excluded from appearing at public meetings with other senior members of the party.

Another scandal turned out to be an unfortunate prank. A radical group in Kiel in northern Germany offered to find buyers for people who were ready to sell their vote for 10 euros in the election. The offer was made on the Internet and was publicized in a Sunday newspaper. It was soon explained that the offer was not serious but just a protest against the electoral system.

However, prosecutors said many people took it seriously and are still deciding whether to bring charges against the jokers.

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