German voters go to the polls today to decide whether they want more of Mr Kohl, or whether now is the time for change. Mr Scharping, 46, the Social Democrat challenger, is wondering whether he will earn a place in history, or be relegated to a footnote, another name on a long list of failed challengers to Mr Kohl.
Above all, though, it is not the conflicts but the lack of them that has been the most remarkable feature of this campaign. The absence of fire may reflect broad agreement across Germany. Consensus continues to be the golden rule of post- war German politics - a deliberate contrast with everything that came before. Visits to three unexceptional German towns - a prosperous Black Forest town, a recession-hit west German steel town and a struggling-yet-hopeful east German town - show the modern German striving for compromise at every turn.
There are manydifferent Germanies - east and west, urban and rural, recession-hit and prosperous. But one thing they share is stability, despite appearances to the contrary.
One most obviously unchanging town is Offenburg: 50,000 inhabitants, gabled and half-timbered houses, 'the Gateway to the Black Forest'. Offenburgers still live in the same comfortable Federal Republic of Germany as always. When east and west Germany were unified four years ago this month, the world turned upside down - but not Offenburg.
Here the consensus is plain to see. The mayor belongs to the Social Democrats (SPD); Mr Kohl's Christian Democrats (CDU) hold the majority of seats on the town council. On a regional level, too, there is co- operation: the state of Baden- Wurttemberg, which includes Offenburg, is ruled by a coalition of CDU and SPD.
Elsewhere, too, political conflict is avoided. Duisburg, on the edge of the industrial Ruhr district, has little of Offenburg's self-confident cosiness. The city centre has the comfortable, sterile look of many west German towns that were rebuilt from the rubble after 1945. But it is far from prosperous by German standards. The city has been badly hit by the recession, and unemployment stands at 15 per cent.
Duisburg, proud of its industrial traditions, is an SPD heartland. And yet here, too, one can glimpse another kind of German consensus. At the end of our conversation Mayor Josef Krings introduces me to his next visitor, a senior manager from one of Germany's industrial giants.
Unprompted, the industrialist talks of the long partnership between the SPD and industry as 'the key to success'. Such a statement in Britain - even in a Blairish Britain - would still be almost unthinkable. In Germany, where the division between conservative Social Democrats and liberal Christian Democrats is almost invisible, it is unsurprising.
Instead, the sharpest divisions are not between the two main party blocs, but between the two nations, west and east.
In Duisburg, few pretend to show any enthusiasm for their eastern cousins. Duisburg is the largest steel-producing city in Europe. But the Krupp factory, which once employed 10,000, closed last year. At the Thyssen works, north of the city, 8,000 jobs were lost this year.
Many in Duisburg resent the funds that have been poured into the east, and the attempts being made to save east German jobs, including jobs in the steel industry. 'They've never worked - and now they expect everything,' is a typical comment, from one of the survivors at Thyssen. His colleague agrees: 'Billions have gone there. And now we're finished.'
Duisburg has given more than pounds 40m to the east this year. And yet the city closed four libraries and two swimming pools in 1993. Mr Krings has a problem: 'How do I explain to people the connection between German unity, the steel crisis, and closing the pool?'
In the east, meanwhile, the turnaround continues. The problems are enormous. But so are the changes. The town centre of Cottbus, not far from the Polish border, is now a huge building site. You weave your way around scaffolded buildings that are being restored, half-completed new buildings, and vast holes in the ground.
As the Duisburgers can testify, the money for this did not come from nowhere. But the positive effects are real. The regional government in the state of Brandenburg - which includes the city of Cottbus - is SPD, and is praised by most Cottbusers for helping the town to turn itself around. When pressed, even members of the post-Communist PDS admit things are improving. Here, too, there is a kind of consensus. Mr Kohl has devoted large chunks of his campaign-trail speeches to the dangers allegedly posed by the PDS, successors to the East German Communists, claiming the Social Democrats may do a deal with the PDS 'red-polished fascists'.
But things look less obvious on the eastern side of the old watchtowers. In Cottbus, political disillusionment has helped to make the PDS the largest single party on the council. The mayor, Waldemar Kleinschmidt, is a Christian Democrat. But he has little time for his boss's bad- mouthing of the PDS, a party he does business with daily: the chairs of the crucial budget committee and of the justice committee are both from the PDS. Mr Kleinschmidt says Mr Kohl's talk of PDS 'extremism' is unhelpful. 'It's very superficial. In his calculations, he'll have been thinking about the fact that three-quarters of the voters are in the west.'
THE fates of the contenders, after the polls close at 6pm today, will depend on the fates of the smaller parties, on Mr Kohl's junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats, who may not be returned to parliament at all, and on the PDS, who could play a crucial role in holding the balance of power.
Germany's complex electoral rules mean options can vary dramatically with only tiny changes in the electoral arithmetic. There could be a win for Mr Kohl's CDU, together with the FDP; a win for the SPD, perhaps with the Greens as coalition partners; a hung parliament, which could end in a grand coalition of SPD and CDU; or the 'traffic-light' coalition - SPD and the Greens, joined by the yellow Liberals.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content