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Ballots, Coffee and Cake

Adam Allington, DW-WORLD.DESeptember 18, 2005

The forces of political inertia in Germany are colossal. Still, on Sunday as Germans around the country headed to the polls an outsider might not realize just how combative this most recent election campaign was.

Election Sunday in Germay often begins at the bakeryImage: picture-alliance/dpa

On a beautiful crisp morning in Bonn, the sound of church bells echoed across the Rhein. All over town people strolled casually down to the local kindergartens, churches, or townhalls to cast their ballot in what has been one of the most highly politicized, highly publicized, tooth-and-nail election campaigns in modern German history.

Biergarten in Berlin
Berliners enjoy time at a biergarten over the weekendImage: AP

On the surface this particular Sunday looks just like any other. Families and couples meander through parks, perhaps on their way to church, some stop at a cafe for a cup of coffee or a pastry. With so many important issues seemingly in the balance -- unemployment, stagnating economy, high taxes, environmental concerns -- it is a wonder that such a grand political spectacle can proceed with such relative tranquility.

Elections on Sunday

Many countries across Europe hold elections on Sunday in order to give citizens time to make their way to the polls. Since re-unification in 1990, voter turn-out among Germans has dropped significantly. Still, at 79.1 percent of eligible citizens casting votes in the last general elections, German turnout dramatically supercedes both the United States and Britain, both of whom had just under 60 percent turnout in their last elections.

The US and Britain also hold their elections during the regular workweek requiring workers to head to the polls over a long lunch break or cast their ballot before work even starts. The idea of holding such important elections during the week is quite strange to most Germans.

Beate Bruckbauer, who works for a telecommunications company in addition to taking care of her young daughter, said she couldn't fathom voting on any other day other than Sunday. "Oh, I can't imagine having elections during the work-week. Why? It's so much easier for everyone if they don't have to work."

Wolfgang and Marion Schindler, a retired couple living in the southern region of Bonn went to the local kindergarten in their neighborhood to register their votes. "Yes, we voted... We woke up and had breakfast, then came here and now we are going to a friend's house for lunch. Elections should always be on the weekend, that way everyone has plenty of time to make it to the vote centers... It's important."

End to the rhetoric

One aspect election hawks continually point to in this year's campaign has been the shift toward a decidedly non-German horse-race, most would say American approach to election campaigning which places more emphasis on personalities rather substance of issues.

Kanzlerkandidatin Angela Merkel bei einer Wahlkampfveranstaltung
Angela Merkel the day before the election in BonnImage: AP

On Saturday, both candidates defied tradition and campaigned down to the wire, speaking at rallies in Frankfurt and Bonn. Saturday is usually a campaign-free day before the election. But both Schröder's SPD and Merkel's CDU parties broke with the past and continued fighting for every vote in the tight race.

Martin Huber is a biology student at Bonn's Friedrich Wilhems University.

"The elections this year seemed a little different then the last election I voted in -- that TV debate, the constant attacks back and forth -- it doesn't give me much confidence, still I am glad that the whole thing will be over soon and we can see what parties will control the government."

Election Stress?

It's hard not to draw comparisons of Germany's election with last year's election in the United States. On the eve of the 2004 election in America political partisanship was at caustic levels. Pundits on both sides claimed the "fate of the country" hung in the balance -- even members of the clergy entered the fray as disgruntled citizens threatened to emigrate to Canada if the right candidate wasn't elected.

Stimmzettel für die Wahl zum Deutschen Bundestag
Ballot for the 2005 Germen ElectionsImage: dpa

In Germany stress levels are no where near the levels experienced across the Atlantic last November. Schröder said Merkel will dismantle the social welfare programs that Germans both love and hate. While Merkel claimed Schröder would bankrupt the German Bundestag and loose even more jobs. It sounds like real end of the world kind of stuff but most Germans tend to view the 2005 election as a fresh start, rather then a dubious choice.

That's thinking Hans-Georg Lemmer and his wife Erika have embraced. Out for a Sunday walk down one of Bonn's pedestrian walkways along the Rhine, they recounted previous elections.

"I voted for Konrad Adenauer, Ludwig Erhard and Helmut Kohl... I always vote CDU," Hans-Georg said.

"I enjoy the elections," Erika added. "Yes, it's true we have a lot of problems in Germany that need to be fixed but I think this election will help us achieve that."