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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

German Election Hinges on Margins

BONN -- Germany's marathon election year wound up Friday with last-minute campaigning for Sunday's anticipated cliffhanger vote, in which marginal parties could decide Chancellor Helmut Kohl's fate.


Kohl, 64, held his final rally Thursday in Erfurt, drawing an impressive 25,000-strong crowd to the medieval cathedral square where flag-waving East Germans cheered him wildly during the unification year 1990.


Challenger Rudolf Scharping, 46, planned an evening rally in Berlin for a last show of the Social Democratic Party, or SPD, "troika" of himself and his shadow economics and finance ministers, Gerhard Schr?der and Oskar Lafontaine.


The long campaign stressed personalities rather than policies, leaving voters to choose between continuity with Kohl, after 12 years one of the world's most experienced leaders, and cautious change under Scharping.


"The voter has the choice between the nice young man from next door or the experienced heavyweight," said Erwin Scheuch, a Cologne University sociology professor.


The vote, the climax of 20 elections in this year's packed political schedule, looked too close to call as pollsters quibbled over whether Kohl's center-right coalition was a hair's breadth above or below an absolute majority.


Kohl's Christian Democrats , or CDU, say a high turnout among the 60.2 million voters could be decisive for the party, its Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) sister party and their liberal Free Democrat (FDP) coalition partners.


The CDU/CSU are expected to fall one or two points short of their 1990 result of 43.8 percent but the FDP looks likely to plummet from the 11 percent it won then thanks to its popular foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who retired in 1992.


All polls see the Free Democrats clearing the 5 percent minimum hurdle to return to parliament, but a result of only 6 percent could be too weak to assure an absolute majority.


If the coalition fails to win reelection, Kohl could be forced to take Scharping in as his vice-chancellor in an unwanted but unavoidable grand coalition of CDU/CSU and the Social Democratic Party.


Scharping might have a riskier option if the numbers allow a "traffic light coalition" of his "red" Social Democrats, the Greens and the Free Democrats, whose official color is yellow.


Another small party that could play a big role Sunday is the Party of Democratic Socialism, or PDR, the reformist successor to East Berlin's hardline communists.


The PDR, now a protest party for the so-called "losers of unification," accounts for about 4 percent of the national electorate, ordinarily too little to return to parliament. But a loophole in the proportional representation law lets a party that wins three constituency seats outright enter parliament with factions smaller than 5 percent.


In the PDR case, if it wins three crucial seats in or near east Berlin, it could return with up to 30 deputies and might even block an overall majority of seats for Kohl's coalition.