Merkel fluffs her lines as election rivals close in

Ms Merkel, who hopes to serve a second term at the head of a new, less constrained, coalition, with the free-market FDP rather than SPD, had returned from the G20 summit in Pittsburgh only hours before. She cited her international experience and stature in support of her bid to remain in power. But tiredness told, and Ms Merkel, while her serious and feisty self, at times appeared hesitant and less fluent than usual.

The tight security ? following a third threat from al-Qa’ida because of Germany’s presence in Afghanistan ? along with the gloom of the indoor sports arena did her no favours.

Ms Merkel had chosen to address her final rally in the heart of former communist east Berlin, underlining both her East German roots and the progress made in bringing together the two halves of Germany over the past 20 years. But while the venue gave particular piquancy to one of Ms Merkel’s favourite pitches ? “You must use your vote; a vote is a precious right. I know, because there were many years when I didn’t enjoy that right” ? it also underlined the continuing disparity in living standards between the two parts of the capital. The venue, close to the Russian war memorial in Treptow Park, is in a scruffy area and surrounded on three sides by a permanent flea market. “For the poor,” as I heard someone explain to a visitor.

Ms Merkel’s final effort to get out her vote was a world away from the closing rally of the SPD, who had gathered the previous evening against the backdrop of the Brandenburg Gate and a fiery sunset. Their candidate, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is the foreign minister in the outgoing “grand” coalition, has not looked back since an unexpectedly strong performance in the one televised debate.

Buoyed by polls showing the SPD making up ground by the day, Mr Steinmeier threw his lawyerly caution to the wind and belted out his confidence that “we cannot just catch up, but overtake” Ms Merkel’s CDU-CSU. With eight points still separating the parties in the final polls, published yesterday, this looks unlikely, but the arithmetic of Germany’s system of proportional representation and the complexities of negotiating a coalition can spring surprises.

The SPD would have no objection, in fact, to continuing the grand coalition with Ms Merkel. She, though, has shown her preference for partnership with the FDP, arguing that its affinity with business and its plans for simpler and lower taxation offer the best recipe for creating jobs and getting the economy moving. She also likes its insistence that Germany can be less dependent on Russian energy only if nuclear energy is included in the mix. The forceful and stylish campaign of the FDP leader, Guido Westerwelle ? Germany’s most prominent gay politician ? could be seen as another asset.

Nuclear energy, taxation and, above all, jobs and job security, have been the central, and rather staid, campaign themes, with Germany’s military presence in Afghanistan making an unheralded, but galvanising, entrance after a German officer called down a US air strike that killed dozens of civilians. Withdrawal from Afghanistan has been the most popular policy of the hard-left Linke party, attracting cheers from audiences all over Germany. Indeed, so popular did it prove, that Mr Steinmeier has said the SPD will set a withdrawal timetable.

Before Afghanistan set it alight, Germans were describing the campaign as perhaps the most tedious ever. Yet, as it progressed, not only did the SPD manage to make a race of it, but the dividing lines between left and right became starker. Afghanistan is one point of differentiation: the left wants not only withdrawal but an end to any German military presence abroad, while the right believes that Germany should start playing an international role more commensurate with its wealth.

Nuclear power is another dividing line: the left, including Linke and the Greens, as well as the SPD, is against any new investment in nuclear energy. It also wants more emphasis on job security and the introduction of a statutory minimum wage. The right, meanwhile, believes that lower taxes create the best conditions for reviving employment.

Part of Ms Merkel’s argument for wanting a coalition with the FDP is to end the constraints she was under from the SPD during the past four years. But Mr Steinmeier told voters they should imagine how much worse things might have been today if his party had not been in government “to stand up for ordinary people”.

Ordinary people ? or the two thirds of Germans who are deemed to belong to the so-called Mittelstand, comprising blue-collar workers, small- and medium-sized businesses and the self-employed ? have loomed ever larger as the campaign progressed, with the three biggest parties all claiming to be the best defender of their interests.

The specifics of the federal electoral system and inevitability of a coalition government, however, leave voters with a quandary. They have two votes: the first for their constituency MP, the second for a party. What if they want Ms Merkel, widely seen as competent and trustworthy, to continue, but fear the FDP’s enthusiasm for the market? Ms Merkel directly addressed that issue yesterday, warning voters against “trying to play tactical games”. If, as is likely, this piece of advice is disregarded by many, the result could be even closer than it looked in the final polls.

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