Does This Vote Matter?

One of Germany's favorite Internet sites, these days, is the Kanzlergenerator. Start with a grinning image of Der Kanzler, Gerhard Schroder. With a few clicks, mix in a couple of facial features from his challenger in next week's national election, Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber. Depending on how you blend nose, mouth, eyes and hair, you get an Edhard Schoiber, a Germund Stroder--or a Schoider, a Schrober, a Stoider. "To lower CO2 emissions, we have to protect women from violence and reduce the tax on small business," one of these political polymorphs tells us.

For many Germans, such gobbledygook too closely resembles the real campaign. With 4 million unemployed, near-zero growth and the astonishing transformation of Germany from Europe's juggernaut to economic laggard, the Sept. 22 election should by rights be a juicy dogfight over who's to blame for the mess--and how to fix it. But no. The latest ZDF Politbarometer poll puts both candidates at 38 percent, with a big chunk of unenthusiastic undecideds. As the Kanzlergenerator suggests, neither candidate has inspired voters, charted a distinctive vision of the future--or convinced Germans that he's the man to rescue the country from its troubles.

By any measure, Germany is at a political and economic watershed. The latest economic data shows no stop to the downward spiral. Joblessness has hit a three-year high. Consumer sales, already depressed, keep slipping. The public-health system reports a gaping funding shortfall, boding further bad news for the federal budget deficit--at 3.5 percent, well exceeding the limits allowed by the European Union. Campaigning for chancellor four years ago, Schroder famously declared that he didn't deserve to be re-elected if he failed to improve Germany's economic prospects, a slip of the lip Stoiber has played to the hilt. "Mr. Schroder, your economic record is a national catastrophe," he harrumphed at a recent campaign stop in Hamburg.

Abroad, Germany seems increasingly adrift, questioning its traditional relationship with the United States and unsure of its role in the world. Clearly playing for votes, Schroder has categorically ruled out any German military action on Iraq, even under the auspices of the United Nations. Furthermore, he recently pledged to withdraw German soldiers and tanks already stationed in Kuwait if the Americans attack. Schroder touts this as a new "German way." But skeptics sniff that it's little more than a German brand of international unilateralism, a charge its leaders usually reserve for George W. Bush. Stoiber has been more circumspect, but doubts remain, especially in Washington. Where is Germany heading?

What a change from a year ago, when Germany seemed a solid world partner and Schroder himself appeared unbeatable. The economy was doing better then. And the chancellor was also getting credit for putting Germany--and with it, Europe--on the right path on some important issues. He had cut sky-high income taxes, leading France and Italy to pass tax cuts themselves. He took the first steps toward reforming a pension system undermined by an aging population and threatened with bankruptcy. He also broke other taboos that had accumulated under the 16-year rule of his conservative predecessor, Helmut Kohl. Germany now has a more liberal citizenship law, a more rational immigration policy, even gay marriage.

What Schroder has failed to do is far more damning, especially at a time when people's chief concerns are preserving their jobs and livelihood. Instead of reforming laws that make German workers the world's most expensive--and inflexible--he cozied up to the unions, giving them new powers to comanage companies and making it tougher to lay off workers. But the side effect was to make businesses even more loath to hire. Costly Social Security systems that serve as a tax on labor also stand at record highs. These days, virtually every country in Europe--from Poland to Greece to Italy to Portugal--outdoes Germany at creating jobs.

When it comes to sound bites, Stoiber sounds more economically progressive. He has proposed to loosen some labor laws, and promises to curb the unions and partially privatize health insurance. But like Schroder, his instincts are to stick to the political center, the dog-eared consensus that there shouldn't be too much change, too fast. If the chancellor defends his German way of resisting the pro-business, market-oriented reforms economists agree are necessary to get Germans back to work, so does the challenger. Germans don't want "American hire-and-fire methods," Stoiber told a rally in Frankfurt recently, using a slogan that could have been borrowed from Schroder. Voters can be forgiven for a certain cynicism when hearing Stoiber's promises to be different. Was it not his conservatives, in power from 1982 to 1998, who bloated Germany's bureaucracy, expanded welfare programs and ran up the national deficit faster than you can say "socialism"? "Stoiber's reflexes are for more government," says Wilhelm Hennis, politics professor at the University of Freiburg.

If there's a realm of genuine difference between the two, it concerns foreign policy. Schroder's populist stand on Iraq has isolated Germany even from its barely less Bush-phobic allies. With antiwar sentiment running high, the normally pro-American Stoiber has kept his distance from the administration as well. But unlike the Social Democrats, his party hasn't bolted entirely. While Stoiber tells the voters there will be "no military adventures," his shadow foreign minister, Wolfgang Schuble, sends a friendlier signal. "Saddam is a problem we have to deal with, and the threat of military action needs to be kept up," he recently told NEWSWEEK.

The differences are equally clear on less high-profile but just as pressing issues. German-French relations, once a motor for European integration, are virtually frozen--mainly because Schroder and President Jacques Chirac just don't click. Without Europe's two largest states at least in rough agreement on a course for the EU, watershed decisions on institutional reform, agricultural subsidies and regional funds aren't being taken. The French are so tickled by the thought of getting rid of Schroder, in fact, that last July Chirac named him a commander of the Legion of Honor--an unprecedented interference in a neighbor's election campaign.

German-British relations are almost as cool. What looked like an emerging entente on pro-market reforms died a quick death after the left wing of Schroder's party told him to back off. Though no economic liberal, Stoiber's politics should at least be closer to Tony Blair's. "Stoiber understands better than Schroder that a strong Europe is good for Germany," says Daniel Gros, director of the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels.

Of course, it's the economy that will make or break any government. And with no direct election of the chancellor, Germany's future depends not only on the two main parties but also the three smaller ones, the Free Democrats, Greens and Communists. Once the vote is in, coalition politics will require compromises. That might morph either candidate into yet another confusing image. Germany's mounting problems are laid out in brutal clarity. One would wish their choice in the election were as clear.