Germans Vote But Outcome Seems Likely

It's parliamentary election day today in Germany. If there's one way to describe the mood leading into today's vote, it's the very un-German word ennui. The candidates and their campaigns just aren't sparking much interest or enthusiasm among voters. Polls show that incumbent chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-right Christian Democratic Party are likely to remain in power. But what kind of coalition she'll be able to form is still very much in question. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports on the campaign.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

It's parliamentary election day today in Germany. And if there's one way to describe the mood leading into today's vote, then it's the very un-German word, ennui. The candidates and their campaigns just aren't sparking much interest. Polls show that incumbent chancellor, Angela Merkel and her center right Christian Democratic Party are likely to remain in power. But the kind of coalition she'll be able to form is still in question.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Berlin.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Along the Spree River near Berlin's main train station, a large billboard of a smiling Chancellor Angela Merkel reads: Smart Out of the Crisis. Nearby, a poster for her rival, Frank Walter Steinmeier, the Social Democrat, declares: Our Country Can Do Better.

The slogans have hardly inspired. One reason for the somnambulant race is that Steinmeier and Merkel are partners in the so-called grand coalition. They've been hesitant to even sharply disagree with each other. But the leader of the Social Democrats seems to have hit his stride in the last weeks of the race.

Mr. FRANK WALTER STEINMEIER: (German spoken)

WESTERVELT: The veteran technocrat is seen as an effective, if charismatically challenged, foreign minister. But at the last rally of the race this weekend, Steinmeier bounded onto the stage at the base of the Brandenburg Gate and took rare forceful shots at his rivals.

Chancellor Merkel would prefer to end the coalition with Steinmeier and his party in favor of a governing alliance with the pro-business Free Democratic Party or FDP. Steinmeier warned the crowd not to elect a right-wing coalition that he said only looks after itself.

Mr. STEINMEIER: (Through translator) This is the greed and hubris that got us into the crisis. They still think the only solution is a market without borders and without reason. This is the thinking of the me generation, elbowing people aside to get a bonus. And it's also the thinking of the CDU and the FDP. I tell you, my friends, this is not the answer to the economic crisis. We must prevent this.

WESTERVELT: For Steinmeier, it may be too little too late. Polls show that his party has gained ground, but still trails Merkel and her CDU. On the campaign trail, Merkel, for her part, almost never mentions Germany's troops in Afghanistan or other controversial issues.

On the edge of the Steinmeier rally, retired school principal Anna Margareta(ph) from Essen, Germany, an avid Merkel supporter, listened to the opposition and shook her head. Margareta says she admires what she calls Merkel's stable and pragmatic governing style.

Ms. ANNA MARGARETA (Retired School Principal): (Through translator) She doesn't need to be out fighting all the time. She keeps quiet and steady. She does everything in silence and small steps. She promised that, and she delivered. It's good she doesn't quarrel with other politicians. She is objective, keeps to the point and doesn't insult anyone.

WESTERVELT: If Chancellor Merkel gets reelected and gets her favored coalition, she says she wants to reduce taxes and simplify the tax code. But, otherwise, it's not clear what she really wants to accomplish in a second term.

Mr. ERWIN COLLIER (Analyst, Free University of Berlin): The easy way to think of Chancellor Merkel's campaign is I am chancellor and he's not. Trust me, I'm a good person.

WESTERVELT: Analyst Erwin Collier of the Free University of Berlin thinks Merkel's emphasis on personality over issues may have a price.

Mr. COLLIER: Clearly, the life of the democracy depends on an active debate on issues. And there has been, with the exception of the opposition parties, almost nobody trying to get anyone's attention to issues.

WESTERVELT: Maybe those smaller opposition parties - the Greens, Die Linke, or the Left Party - who may do well enough today to shape the debate if the social Democrats end up joining them in the opposition.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Berlin.

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