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German election a yawner for voters

Despite challenges ahead, the campaign has mostly avoided serious debate and many voters may sit on their hands. The two main parties have been yoked in power, and it's hard to tell them apart.

September 27, 2009|Henry Chu

GOLM, GERMANY — As the clock ticks down to national elections here, voter apathy has risen to fever pitch.

Forget that the next government faces a host of important challenges, such as hauling Europe's biggest economy out of recession and reconsidering its commitment of troops for the increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan. When polls open this morning, Germans are expected to stay away in droves.

Jutta Hoffman is one of the uninterested. She shrugs at the names of political leaders, their parties leave her cold and their promises ring hollow.

"I don't believe in politicians anymore," said Hoffman, a florist's assistant in this quiet village outside the northeastern city of Potsdam. "I'm 50 years old now; I've seen everything. . . . I know all the parties, but I'm not interested in any of them."

Hoffman's indifference, and that of millions of others, is due in part to what experts agree has been one of the dullest electoral contests in Germany in recent memory, a "Valium campaign" whose major controversy has come from political posters featuring women's cleavage and bare backsides.

Despite the difficult issues and choices that lie ahead, the race has largely steered clear of substantive discussion and debate. For that, analysts largely point at the woman who, barring some catastrophe, looks set to be returned to Germany's top post: Chancellor Angela Merkel, the only female leader of a major world power.

Opinion polls give Merkel's party, the Christian Democratic Union (together with its Bavarian sister party), a healthy lead over its nearest rival, the Social Democratic Party. Even stronger are Merkel's personal approval ratings, which have encouraged her to play it safe and sedate in the campaign, even as her chief challenger, a man seen by many as a colorless bureaucrat, has been unable to fire up voters' imaginations.

The question now facing political watchers -- if not the general public -- is who Merkel's governing partner will be, since no party is likely to win an outright majority in the Bundestag, or lower house. The Christian Democrats, or CDU, are hoping that the pro-business Free Democratic Party will finish strongly enough to allow a ruling coalition between them, which would help Merkel to enact reforms of Germany's rigid labor market and to lower taxes.

Such an alliance would end the awkward yoking that has governed Germany for four years: a "grand coalition" of historically bitter rivals, the center-right CDU and the center-left Social Democrats.

The two parties' often uncomfortable power-sharing arrangement has dragged down government action on thorny issues such as the fate of Germany's nuclear power plants, which Merkel wants to keep running despite public pressure for a phaseout.

But the grand coalition has also had the unintended effect of dampening interest in today's election. Many voters complain that, after four years of co-dependency, the two parties are now more alike than they are different, leaving the electorate with an uninspiring and not very clearly defined choice.

During the one and only debate between Merkel and SPD leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier, one of the moderators needled them for acting more like an "old married couple" than political adversaries. (Even so, most commentators agreed that it was the colorless "husband," Steinmeier, who won the encounter.)

"That move of both parties . . . to the center makes them less distinguishable today than they were 30, 40 years ago," said Joerg Forbrig, a Berlin-based analyst with the German Marshall Fund of the United States. "They did that in order to maximize votes, and answers to social problems weren't defined by ideology so much anymore."

In some ways, the most interesting element of this election is the increasing prominence of smaller parties that have taken over the old ideological territory of the CDU and the SPD and attracted voters impatient with pragmatism and big-tent politics.

The Free Democrats, the Greens and the rapidly rising Left party, the successor to the Communists of the former East Germany, have been polling more than 10% each, making them potential kingmakers and speeding up the erosion of support for the two big parties, which no longer dominate the scene as they once did.

"This is not a one-off," Forbrig said. "There's a diversification of the political and party landscape underway. . . . I generally think that this is a very good thing to happen, because it makes our party system more democratically compatible with society," which itself is growing more diverse.

To the extent that she has done any real campaigning, Merkel has emphasized her competence in handling the economic crisis. Unemployment has so far not struck Germany as badly as feared -- though some economists warn that worse may be to come -- and there are signs that the country is edging out of recession.

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