The Ozeaneum aquarium in the Baltic Sea port of Stralsund is a futuristic structure. Its claim to fame is that German Chancellor Angela Merkel became a godmother of sorts there. The chancellor's godchild, a female penguin named Alexandra, is set to receive another visit from Merkel on Sept. 21.
On that Saturday afternoon, one day before the German general election, the chancellor will give a speech outside the Ozeaneum. By that time, her party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), will have brought its campaign to an end, with a final rally scheduled for that morning in Berlin's Tempodrom concert hall. After the rally, it will be time for voters to cast their ballots.
But the chancellor has good reasons to make a bonus appearance. For her, the days and hours just before the election have become an incalculable risk. That's when up to one third of all voters, almost twice as many as in the 2002 election, will decide what party to vote for. In the worst case, it could cost the chancellor the majority she needs to form her preferred coalition with the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP).
All German parties have taken note. They will spend more money in the final week of the campaign than in any other week, with the majority of expensive TV spots airing in the final seven days.
The number of undecided voters highlights a fundamental shift in voter behavior in Germany. For decades, voters were as loyal to their political party as to their football club, church or trade union. In the old Germany, the parties knew that they could count on their core supporters, and that all they had to worry about in the final days of a campaign were a few swing voters.
Particularly Aggravating for Merkel
But now German voters have become emancipated and are as unpredictable as the weather in April. Until just recently, many Germans weren't even aware that a parliamentary election was scheduled for this fall. Now the campaigns are slowly gaining momentum, and yet voters refuse to be pressured. Some won't even decide which box to check until they're on their way to the polling place.
This is particularly aggravating for the chancellor. Although her challenger, Social Democrat Peer Steinbrück, may seem to be down on his luck and trailing far behind at the moment, there is one piece of good news for him: Undecided voters are voters who can still be convinced. Indeed, the SPD is focusing heavily on the final three days with door-to-door campaigning set to continue right through election day. The SPD clearly remembers 2005, when Gerhard Schröder almost managed to defeat Merkel despite what seemed to be a hopeless deficit in the polls immediately prior to the vote.
On the other hand, Merkel's poll numbers are so high that the only possible direction for her would seem to be down.
But it's a delicate situation. For the first time in postwar German history, Bavaria will hold its state elections one week before the national election. Merkel is worried that the FDP might not clear the five-percent hurdle needed to enter the state parliament there. That, in turn, could motivate several conservative voters to cast their ballots for the FDP out of tactical reasons -- to make sure the FDP managed to jump the five-percent hurdle in the national election. Surveys currently indicate that election night will be a nail-biter for the FDP; the party has been hovering around the 5 percent mark for months.
There is a recent precedent. In January, the FDP looked so weak ahead of the Lower Saxony state election that many CDU voters decided at the last minute to switch their vote. The result was a surprisingly strong 10 percent result for the FDP, a much lower than expected total for the CDU -- and an election loss to a Social Democrats/Green Party coalition.
In Bavaria, the FDP is currently polling at about 4 percent. It will be a debacle for both the FDP and the Christian Social Union -- the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats -- if the liberals don't improve on that number on election day. "If the FDP loses its seats in the Bavarian state parliament, we can expect an excessive rescue campaign at the national level," say top CDU officials. CDU warhorse Wolfgang Bosbach adds that, in such a scenario, "the FDP's results will be in the double digits."
Merkel's position is made more difficult by Germany's complicated election system, whereby each voter actually has two votes -- a circumstance which could lead many to split their pair of votes between the CDU and the FDP. Merkel is hell-bent on preventing this from happening. Unlike in 2005 and 2009, the CDU TV ad that will air primarily in the last week of the campaign doesn't end with a nebulous message, but with a clear statement: "Both votes for the CDU." In the last days of the campaign, the party's state organizations will place a sticker on CDU posters that reads: "Your second vote is a vote for Merkel."
Will it do any good? Merkel's problem is that she has reversed course on many of the CDU's core issues in recent years. She has eliminated compulsory military service and jettisoned her party's support for nuclear energy, and now the party even favors gender quotas. If content has so little meaning, party loyalty also begins to fade. Why shouldn't a middle-class voter cast a tactical ballot for the FDP?
The CDU hopes that poll results will prevent such a scenario. For the first time in postwar German history, a poll will be released on the Thursday before the election. The poll, to be conducted by the ZDF television network, is likely to reflect the effects of the Bavarian election: Should the FDP manage to capture 6 or 7 percent in Bavaria, voters in the national election will be less concerned about the party failing to clear the five percent threshold nationally.
Still, Wolfgang Bosbach, perhaps the most industrious campaigner of them all, is taking no chances. The lawmaker from the western city of Bergisch-Gladbach has been running in Bundestag campaigns since 1972 and knows that his supporters value a very practical service on election Sunday. He'll be getting up in the middle of the night to walk the streets of his district and deliver little paper bags to voters. The bags will be filled with freshly baked rolls.