A survey conducted by Germany's Infratest Dimap organisation showed that Mrs Merkel's Christian Democrats and their prospective liberal Free Democrat coalition partners would win only 48 per cent of the vote in the September election. It is the the first poll to show Mrs Merkel's coalition falling short of a majority since she announced her decision to run for Chancellor.
Yesterday's poll showed the conservatives and liberals were running neck and neck with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's ruling Social Democrats and Greens and the country's recently formed radical left-wing "Left Party", which were also predicted to win a combined total of 48 per cent.
The survey's finding ended nearly two months in which Germany's conservative CDU had maintained a seemingly unassailable lead over its competitors and appeared on track to win the election. The bad news was compounded at the weekend by other polls which showed that more than 50 per cent of Germans would not welcome a change of government after the elections and that in a straight choice for the job of Chancellor, irrespective of party, Mr Schröder remained the clear favourite by 8 per cent.
Despite an extensive image overhaul, Mrs Merkel has lost ground to Mr Schröder because of weak television interviews, a confusing election programme and embarrassing slip-ups over terminology.
Last week, Mrs Merkel was criticised in the media for confusing net and gross income figures during a campaign speech. She was also made to appear no match for Mr Schröder after she refused to take part in more than one American-style television debate with the Chancellor. By contrast, Mr Schröder has appeared frequently on prime-time television to answer questions from political and business critics, the jobless and other aggrieved members of the public. He has appeared convincing despite his government's abysmal record on tackling unemployment.
His coalition still has little chance of being re-elected in September. Prospects for both parties, in particular the SPD, have suffered dramatically since the emergence of the Left Party headed by "Red" Oskar Lafontaine, the renegade former SPD leader and ex-German finance minister.
Opinion polls suggest the Left Party stands to win between 11 and 12 per cent nationwide and can count on the support of 33 per cent of voters in Germany's unemployment-plagued east. Although a handful of SPD members have called for an alliance with the Left Party after the election, Mr Schröder and his Green coalition partners have categorically rejected the idea.
The realisation, that the SPD's only realistic chance of remaining in office after the election may lie in a joint administration with the conservatives, prompted calls by leading members of Mr Schröder's government yesterday for a grand coalition government with the CDU. Predictably, these suggestions were angrily dismissed yesterday by Germany's smaller parties, which would stand to lose most from a grand coalition. Mr Schröder and Mrs Merkel also rejected debate on the issue as premature. However, some observers said that if the Left Party gained seats in parliament after the election a grand coalition would be unavoidable.
"We should not have high hopes of a grand coalition," said Arnulf Baring, a historian. "The SPD and CDU would be at loggerheads and this would stand in the way of attempts to consolidate policy," he added.
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