BERLIN — With the first free, all-German election in nearly 60 years only days away, the hoopla and sense of anticipation by rights should be almost uncontainable.
Can Chancellor Helmut Kohl cap the most successful year of his political life by becoming the first freely elected German leader since Gen. Kurt von Schleicher last inherited the mantle in a November, 1932, election?
Or might his Social Democrat opponent Oskar Lafontaine manage an unlikely upset and place Europe's richest nation in socialist hands?
Whatever the answer, there are scant clues in the German press.
Indeed, with a few notable exceptions, what should be the campaign of the half-century has drawn so little media attention that the average German newspaper reader could scan a week of headlines and be forgiven for not knowing it was even under way, let alone nearing its conclusion.
Often ignoring the election completely on their front pages, German newspaper editors have instead focused on other subjects--such as the search to rename the region that for 40 years was called East Germany.
After mulling such options as, "eastern Germany," "the former East Germany," "ex-East Germany" and "the eastern part of Germany," the Berliner Morgenpost recently reported officials have found the answer in the letters FNL--an acronym for Five New Laender, or the five federal states recently created from the territory.
"Unsure of how they should call it, the Bonn bureaucrats have decided on their own in favor of the abbreviation that now increasingly appears in internal memos," the paper reported.
Elsewhere, papers both high brow and low brow have consistently pushed the election campaign out of the limelight.
The weekly Die Zeit, considered Germany's most thoughtful voice of center-left political opinion, has devoted more space than most to the campaign, but left its front page free mainly for foreign policy issues. At the other end of the market, readers of the mass-circulation Bild-Zeitung learn far more about the alleged romantic entanglements of tennis star Steffi Graf's father, or the anguish of a 30-year-old baroness for her seriously ill 64-year-old husband, than the lives of leading political figures involved in the election Sunday.
Bild-Zeitung did come up with a three-part series on Lafontaine, but only a small "teaser" ran on the front page, and that was dominated by a caricature of the socialist politician with a Pinocchio-like nose.
"Election interest isn't great," admitted Edgar Piel, spokesman for the Allensbach Institute, one of Germany's leading opinion research organizations. "There's a feeling the result is already known, so what's the point in debate?"
Indeed, Kohl's center-right coalition has a solid lead in the polls, with few voters remaining undecided.
Virtually from the outset, Lafontaine has looked unconvincing and unsure--about as much the potential winner as one-time American presidential candidates George S. McGovern or Walter F. Mondale during their hapless struggles. Even his fellow Social Democrats talk of the impending defeat.
Former Social Democrat Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, for example, delivered a rare, spicy dollop of election-related news last week by declaring that not only will his party's candidate lose Sunday's election, but that Lafontaine deserves defeat.
With more than a little glee, many papers carried the reaction of the Social Democrats youth wing, claiming the statement only confirmed "Schmidt's arrogant, presumptuous, self-centered and senile stupidity."
Aside from such sporadic incidents, the campaign contains remarkably few issues for a nation that has been through such an intense emotional wringer over the past 12 months.
Problems, for example, such as rocketing unemployment and the environmental disaster of eastern Germany, or the global role of a united Germany, are crucial to the country's future. Yet they remain outside the campaign itself because the Social Democrats have offered no credible alternative to existing government policies.
Only Kohl's offhand remark at a Munich election rally the other day, that German voters should be prepared to pay surcharges to help clean up the environment, has focused press attention on a real issue: how to finance the estimated $70-billion to $90-billion annual costs of German unity.
The remark prompted widespread criticism, in part because Kohl had pledged he would not raise taxes to pay for unification.
As Kohl lamely tried to explain the differences between a "surcharge" and a tax hike, many papers panned him for his previous failure to rally public support for economic sacrifice by an appeal to a national sense of obligation.
Noted the prestigious Frankfurter Allgemeine: "The process of German unity would have had a high enough moral worthiness if the words sacrifice in solidarity had been used from the beginning."
Still, the resulting spat on the tax issue was between Kohl's Christian Democrats and his junior coalition partner Free Democrats; Lafontaine's comments were almost totally drowned out by this coalition spat.
It was Die Zeit that best summed up the public mood of an emotionally exhausted people, several million of whom now face their fourth election in nine months, staggering to the end of their most traumatic year since 1945.
Someone had painted over an election campaign poster in an eastern Berlin suburb, the paper noted. The vandal's two-word message: "Not again."