While Japanese voters have been focused on the campaign at home, German voters have been engrossed in an election battle every bit as intense and with stakes as great. Since the election was called in May, the outcome looked clear: The opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU), along with its partner, the Free Democratic Party, would win a majority. Yet, ahead of Sunday’s poll, the gap has closed, and now it looks as though Germany may be forced to embrace a “grand coalition” of the CDU and its rival, the governing Social Democratic Party (SPD).

While some applaud such super-majorities, the marriage of convenience may not be in Germany’s best interests: Grand coalitions can create paralysis and “muddling through” in the absence of a real mandate for either party.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder took office in 1998 after the SPD defeated a CDU then led by Mr. Helmut Kohl, who was fatigued by a long term in office and seemingly ill-equipped to deal with the challenges faced by a newly reunified Germany in a post-Cold War world. Mr. Schroeder was seen as a new liberal, like then U.S. President Bill Clinton or British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But the prospect of a German “third way” never materialized. The German economy languished; once ambitious reforms were scaled back as Mr. Schroeder seemed to lack the stomach for a fight over the country’s economic model, despite the pressures imposed by globalization.

In foreign policy, Germany took on a more assertive international role, even dispatching military forces to join multilateral operations. At the same time, Berlin was torn between Washington and Paris, as trans-Atlantic ties conflicted with European unity, especially with regard to Iraq.

That tension came to a head three years ago. In 2002, Mr. Schroeder played the anti-U.S. card for a come-from-behind victory in another national election. Those tactics marked a break in German political traditions — no ruling party had ever campaigned against Washington — and created a rupture in U.S.-German ties that has yet to heal.

Desperate tactics did not change Germany’s situation. The economy remains sluggish: It recorded zero growth in the second quarter of this year, and unemployment remains painfully high at 11.6 percent of the workforce, just under 5 million people. Mr. Schroeder’s Socialists look a lot like Mr. Kohl’s CDU of seven years ago: tired and lacking ideas.

Thus the Sept. 18 ballot was generally considered to be the CDUs to lose. And while the party still looks like it will win the most votes this weekend, it may not collect enough votes to rule with its preferred partner, the Liberal Democrats. The blame for that alarming turn belongs on the shoulders of the CDU head, Mrs. Angela Merkel.

Mrs. Merkel is the face of the “new” CDU. A former East German (or “Ossie”), she has no illusions about the relentlessness of economic forces or about Germany’s place in Europe and the world. Considered business-friendly, she fears ties with the United States have weakened too much in the last few years. She is skeptical about close relations with Russia and too much reliance on France. Most significantly, she was thought to be a force for change in a society that is tired of gridlock. In recent weeks, though, that image has slipped. Mr. Schroeder bested Mrs. Merkel in a recent television debate. Opinion polls show that he remains more popular than her, although voters prefer the CDU to his Socialist Party. Some of the tax policies proposed by the CDU worry many voters, as does Mrs. Merkel’s choice of a shadow finance minister.

The result has been shrinking support for the CDU and growing support for the Socialists. It now looks as though Mrs. Merkel has lost the chance for a decisive win in this weekend’s ballot. Support for the CDU and the Liberal Democrats has fallen below 50 percent. As a result, Mrs. Merkel may be forced to rule in a grand coalition with the SPD. Polls show a little more than one-third of voters favoring this arrangement — more than those who back a center-right coalition government.

Such an arrangement would probably not help Germany deal with the challenges it faces. A grand coalition would deprive either party of real policy responsibility, and the status quo would likely continue as a result. Some reforms have been made and they are beginning to bear fruit, but they are just a beginning. Hard choices are needed to revitalize the German economy, but a grand coalition is unlikely to make them. Germany is too big and too important to continue to merely muddle through. Unfortunately, it looks like the upcoming election may only promise more of the same.

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