New German Polls SPD Gains Make Dull Race More Exciting

A few short weeks ago, it seemed so clear: German voters would return Angela Merkel to power, and the business-friendly Free Democrats would be her allies. But now the Social Democrats are clawing back popular support. Could it be that the once-soporific German election is becoming an exciting race?
For four years, Angela Merkel's CDU has been sleeping with the enemy, Frank-Walter Steinmeier's SPD. It's still unclear which party her CDU will get into bed with next.

For four years, Angela Merkel's CDU has been sleeping with the enemy, Frank-Walter Steinmeier's SPD. It's still unclear which party her CDU will get into bed with next.


The latest polls indicate that this Sunday's German federal elections could prove to be a repeat of the country's 2005 vote. Polls show that support for the coalition of center-right parties sought by Chancellor Angela Merkel seems to be dropping. Together, Merkel's party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its smaller Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and their desired coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), now have only 46 percent of the vote. The Union -- as the CDU/CSU partner parties are known -- has fallen to 34 percent and the FDP to 14 percent. As the German business daily Handelsblatt, which commissioned the poll from Info GmbH, wrote on Wednesday, this percentage is no longer enough to secure the CDU/CSU-FDP coalition a win in Sunday's vote.

Other polls indicate a similar loss, such as one from the Allensbach Institute, which shows support of only 46.5 percent for the coalition and that from the polling agency Forsa, which says that they have only 47 percent of the vote.

SPD Made Gains After Party Leaders' TV Debate

The coalition known as the black-yellow alliance -- for the party colors of the CDU/CSU and FDP, respectively -- had previously enjoyed around 48 percent of the vote. Back in 2005, the CDU's coalition partner of choice was also the FDP. But as support for the CDU waned -- and support for the SPD rose -- in the week before the election, the center-right CDU was forced into a more uncomfortable coalition with its main competitor, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), currently the second most popular party in Germany. This government, known as the grand coalition, has ruled Germany for the past four years.

"The Union is losing voters while the SPD is catching up," Handelsblatt wrote. Changes had come, it added, after the televised debate between Angela Merkel and her main challenger for the seat, Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the SPD.

Steinmeier has been playing what commentators describe as a catch-up race for a while -- but now it appears to be working.  The SPD is sitting on around 27 percent of the vote, up another point from last week and four points from two weeks ago. Its preferred coalition partner, the Green Party, is sitting on between 10 percent and 12 percent.

Steinmeier Says No More Troops For Afghanistan

Steinmeier's latest move -- if it can be construed as such -- has been to come out, once again, against sending more German troops to Afghanistan. In an interview on the German public television channel NDR on Tuesday, Steinmeier reacted to written suggestions by the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, that more troops were needed there. Steinmeier said that, over the past year, Germany had already increased troop numbers from 3,500 to 4,500, making the country the third-largest supplier of military personnel to the Afghan effort. Steinmeier also said that the German military, together with the Afghans, were helping to build a sustainable infrastructure in the country. He added that Germany was "on the right path," so there was no need to discuss increasing troop numbers.

This is the second time that Steinmeier has come out solidly against German involvement in Afghanistan. He recently drafted a 10-point plan  proposing how a withdrawal of German military forces from Afghanistan could work. Around 60 percent of the German population wants this, so it's safe to assume that Steinmeier's suggestions will also be popular among voters.

Every Party Promises Tax Cuts - But With Varying Results

Another item on the agenda that would doubtless be popular with voters is a tax cut. In a televised weekend debate on public broadcaster ARD, two of the current administration's economics experts -- German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück (SPD) and Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (CSU) -- tussled over the issue. If the CDU has its way, there would be tax cuts for middle-income earners. The SPD's plan is quite different; it wants to raise taxes for high earners and lighten the load on lower-income earners. The FDP, for its part, wants to radically transform the entire tax system.

Economics research institute RWI Essen has analyzed the plans outlined in the election manifestos of the various parties. It says that the result of the tax cuts proposed by the CDU would lighten the tax burden not just on middle- but also on higher-income earners. So would the FDP's, albeit more dramatically. And the SPD's plans would do what they say it will. However, no matter whose tax plan is implemented, there would still be a budget shortfall. The smallest would occur with the CDU's plan; the largest with the FDP's. And one thing that is clear is that Germany still faces hard economic times ahead, as taxpayers and the new administration will be forced to face up to the previous year's state spending and bailouts.

Many German Voters Remain Undecided

During the weekend debate, while Steinbrück criticized the CDU's tax plans as unrealistic, Guttenberg let slip that there were tough times ahead  and that this might even mean cutting public spending. The latter's rare moment of candor led to headlines and a slew of editorials about the emptiness of the various parties' campaign promises in the face of the ongoing financial crisis.

Indeed, on Tuesday, a group of leading German economists said that Germans should expect higher taxes as a result of the economic crisis in the coming months rather than tax cuts. They described current pledges to cut taxes by political parties as "illusory." With German deficit spending expected to reach its highest levels ever -- with more than €100 billion in borrowing in 2010 -- they claim that every third euro in the German budget will be covered with borrowed money.

Perhaps it is no wonder then that up to 40 percent of German voters are apparently still undecided only four days before they head to the polls. While it seems certain that Angela Merkel will retain her seat as chancellor, it is still far from clear who her party is most likely to govern with. 

"The race is getting tight again," Manfred Güllner, director of the Forsa polling institute, told the German weekly Stern. And as "Super Sunday" comes closer, there is only one thing that is becoming clearer by the day -- that this German election will, once again, be a very close race that could be decided on very slight margins.

cis -- with wire reports
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