Voting with gritted teeth: Germany goes to the polls on Sunday lukewarm about both the main contenders. Two minor parties could make all the difference, says Steve Crawshaw

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The Independent Online
LAST time Germans went to the polls it was all very different. In 1990, both Germanies were voting together, in freedom, for the first time. In Willy Brandt's ringing phrase when the wall came down: 'What belongs together, is growing together.'

Today, all the excitement is long since forgotten. German television has this week been running a nightly series of programmes about the Wende, 'the turn' - those magical weeks in 1989 when the old Communist regime vanished for ever, destroyed by a wave of the people's wand. 'We are the people]' the crowds chanted. But the Wende is now almost-forgotten ancient history. The miracle of unification, four years ago this month, is taken for granted too.

This weekend, Germans go to the polls again with, at best, a resigned sense of duty. As a leading commentator, Theo Sommer, noted in this week's Die Zeit: 'The best government leader? The best team? The best programme? They are difficult to tell apart. No Himalayan peak rises from the flat plains of German politics. . . People will vote for the lesser evil. Few voters will do so without gritting their teeth.'

A vote for Helmut Kohl and his Christian Democrats (CDU) on Sunday would not so much mark a clear vote of confidence as a vote against upheaval and a lack of enthusiasm for his Social Democrat (SPD) challenger. In Mr Sommer's words, 'People are not happy with Kohl, but they are not persuaded by Rudolf Scharping.'

The broad issues are scarcely touched in the campaign. The single issue that Mr Scharping has devoted most attention to in his campaign speeches is not unemployment, housing or racism, but his party, the SPD's, specific proposals for a fairer distribution of child benefit. The CDU has put all its money on Mr Kohl himself - in effect, a one-man party - at the same time as suggesting that the economy is only safe in its hands. In that respect, Mr Kohl's party has been very fortunate that economic recovery started just in time. On Europe, despite desperate attempts to whip up some party political distinctions, there is little to separate the two sides.

Foreign policy issues where there are serious differences, for example German participation in UN military missions abroad, are scarcely mentioned.

For Social Democrats - and, still more for their potential coalition allies, the Greens - Mr Kohl represents a dangerous complacency. But the left-of-centre challenge is pale. Mr Scharping talks admiringly of Tony Blair, with whom he would clearly like to identify. But the style can hardly be compared: Mr Scharping's wooden stance gets a less-than-enthusiastic response, even from his own voters.

This past 12 months has been a roller-coaster for pundits' certainties. At the end of last year, the influential Der Spiegel - a magazine that radiates belief in its own infallibility - talked of the 'twilight of the chancellor', and the 'end of an era'. This summer, its cover headline changed to 'The Kohl Phenomenon', explaining why Mr Kohl would stay after all. As the Social Democrats rose in the polls this month, it changed its mind again: 'A change of power, after all?'

This week's cover shows Mr Kohl tearing at the federal German eagle, with the headline 'Power in his grasp?' But on the back cover, Mr Scharping pulls the eagle in the other direction, under the headline: 'Grasping for power?' In the words of Die Zeit, 'Everything is thinkable.'

Polls suggest that the CDU could cling to power by a small margin, and that its junior partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), will scrape back into parliament, allowing the coalition to continue. But the CDU admits that nothing is over until the fat man sings.

Germany's electoral constellation is like a kaleidoscope. Turn it just a few degrees, and the colours quickly rearrange themselves into entirely new patterns. Thus, the life or death of two small parties - the FDP and the successor party to the East German Communists, the PDS - could make a decisive difference to Sunday's results.

The latest poll in yesterday's Die Woche suggested that the FDP is perched on the 5 per cent borderline, below which it would no longer be represented in parliament. The same poll gives the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, 43 per cent of the vote.

If the FDP squeezes in, it would give the government coalition a total of 48 per cent, three points ahead of the Social Democrats (SPD) and their potential partner, the Greens. But if the FDP falls at the 5 per cent hurdle, the SPD and Greens would gain the largest proportion of seats. There might be a stalemate, too - a grand coalition of Christian and Social Democrats together, as between 1966 and 1969.

To the embarrassment of the Social Democrats, it is possible that the Communist successor, the PDS - which regularly gains 20 per cent of the vote in eastern elections - might hold the key to wresting the chancellorship from Mr Kohl. If the PDS wins three directly elected seats - which it hopes to do in east Berlin - then, because of the complexities of the proportional system, it is likely to pick up around 30 seats in the federal parliament, even if it does not gain 5 per cent of the vote nationwide. Mr Scharping would then have to decide whether to use the PDS's support in the parliament to send Mr Kohl packing at last.

Even here there are problems. Earlier this year, the SPD struck an implicit deal with the PDS, in the east German state of Saxony- Anhalt, which enabled the SPD to form a minority government there. That move gave the CDU an easy propaganda goal, with accusations that the Social Democrats were in effect brothers-in-arms of the former Communists. In the west, many regard the PDS as a clear and lethal danger to democracy. In the east, however, the party holds much less horror, even among those who reject what it stands for. Mr Scharping hotly denies that the Saxony-Anhalt option might be repeated, but national scepticism remains.

Criss-crossing the old border between west and east, one is constantly confronted with the differences in attitudes. The old death- strip has mostly been bulldozed into history, and the physical face of east Germany is being transformed as the western economy takes hold. Already, earnings in the east are almost comparable with those in the west. But the psychological split, the 'wall in people's heads', is still strong. West Germans believe the Ossis to be incompetent, lazy whingers. East Germans believe the Wessis to be arrogant, self-centred fools.

This split is one reason for the strength of the PDS. The party draws its support from widespread eastern disillusion and a desire to prevent the eastern identity from being crushed. Despite Mr Kohl's rhetoric, the PDS does not simply represent Erich Honecker's spiritual heir. Rather, East Germans on all sides of the political spectrum feel unsettled by loss of identity in the brave new western world.

Whether or not the PDS performs well, the shape of the new government may not become clear on Sunday night. Coalition negotiations could continue for days or even weeks afterwards. But one set of losers can confidently be predicted. The far-right Republicans, which two years ago seemed so strong, have little chance of gaining seats in the federal parliament, the Bundestag.

Many east Germans argue that the wall in the heads is gradually crumbling. The costs have been enormous, but so too have the achievements. Who knows: perhaps by 1998, when Germans next choose a federal parliament, Germany could be virtually a single country. From today's perspective, it seems scarcely possible. But many impossible things have happened in recent years.

(Photograph omitted)