Germany is getting ready for one of the closest general elections in years. Opinion polls show Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats and the opposition conservatives led by Edmund Stoiber running virtually neck-and-neck. The surveys indicate Mr. Schroeder has gained voter support for his deft handling of a flood emergency and his strong opposition to any U.S.-led attack against Iraq.
Most observers expect a photo-finish when the polls close Sunday evening.
Even though Mr. Schroeder is personally more popular than Mr. Stoiber, Germans vote for parties, not personalities. But after trailing the conservatives all year long, the Social Democrats have finally caught up, and some polls even show them with a razor-thin lead.
When he was first elected chancellor in 1998, Mr. Schroeder said he would not deserve to be re-elected if he failed to cut the unemployment rolls by half a million people. Four years later, the number of jobless still stands at four million, and Mr. Stoiber has hammered away mercilessly at the chancellor, turning Germany's stubbornly high unemployment rate and its stagnant economy into his main issues.
At several points during the year, the conservatives led the social democrats by five points. But Mr. Schroeder's fortunes began to turn around in August, when floods devastated parts of eastern and southern Germany and he seized on the opportunity to demonstrate his crisis management skills. He also announced a $7 billion economic aid package for the stricken areas and, in a risky move for any politician, said he was postponing a tax cut scheduled for next year, to fund reconstruction projects.
The other issue that gave him a boost was Germans' growing fear about war with Iraq. Paradoxically, it was Mr. Schroeder who sent troops to Kosovo in 1999 and Afghanistan last year despite the qualms many Germans had about ordering the country's soldiers abroad for the first time since World War II.
This time, Mr. Schroeder broke with the United States by ruling out any German involvement in an attack on Iraq, even if the action were approved by the United Nations.
Christoph Von Marschall, head of the editorial page of Berlin's Tagespiegel newspaper, says Mr. Schroeder was adept at reading German public opinion on this issue.
"We have to understand that for 40 years or 50 years, after World War II, Germans didn't take part in any military action out of NATO," he explained. "And the last ten years saw enormous changes in this attitude. We have troops in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Afghanistan, off the coast of Somalia. This is an enormous change for Germans, and that is why, in the polls, 70 per cent of the Germans say they would be very happy if Germany doesn't take part in a war against Iraq."
Professor Angela Stent, of Washington's Georgetown University, believes that Mr. Schroeder has tapped into something that goes beyond Germans' reluctance to go to war.
"I see this also as a reassertion of Germany's sovereignty, of saying 'it's 12 years after unification. We have the right to pursue our own policies. We don't always have to do what the United States does.' So even though economic issues are very important, it seems that the campaign has been turned around on this issue of Germany's independence, its sovereignty and its right to disagree with the United States and assert its own interests."
German-U.S. friction over the issue has risen to new heights in recent days, after Germany's justice minister, Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, was quoted by a regional newspaper as saying President Bush, like Adolf Hitler, was threatening war to distract attention from domestic politics. The minister says her remarks were taken out of context, and Mr. Schroeder is giving her the benefit of the doubt. But he has written to Mr. Bush expressing regret over the alleged remarks, which were characterized by the White House as "outrageous."
Mr. Stoiber was caught off-guard by the flap over Iraq. He simultaneously criticized Mr. Schroeder for harming German-U.S. ties and suggested American forces should not be allowed to use bases in Germany for unilateral attacks on Iraq. Then, he backtracked when the Social Democrats said there is no way to keep the Americans from deploying from their own bases on German soil.
Anthony Grayling, the associate editor of the British magazine Prospect, and an expert on Germany, sees this waffling by Mr. Stoiber on the Iraq issue as indicative of his weakness as a candidate.
"He hasn't exploited the mistakes, the turnarounds, the difficulties that Schroeder has faced in recent months," he said. "And so, in a way, if it turns out that Schroeder gets back by the skin of his teeth this weekend, it's going to be because Stoiber lost the election just as much as Schroeder won it."
So what will determine who wins Sunday's election? Will it be the sad state of Germany's economy, as the conservatives hope? Or will it be the fear of war that the Social Democrats have made into their main issue? Jackson Janes, of Johns Hopkins University's Berlin Center, says it depends on which of the two men Germans feel most secure with.
"They're going to go for somebody that they feel secure with," he said. "Schroeder is appealing not only to the anti-war movement, but also he's going to say 'I'm going to protect you.' Stoiber is trying to be a little more tough and say "we're going to have to make some changes."
Among the changes the conservatives want to make are cutting taxes, easing rules for laying off workers and making unemployment benefits less generous to spur more competitiveness in Germany's economy. Though favored by business leaders, such measures are anathema to the country's entrenched labor unions.