"For the first time in this election I'm feeling nervous," one FDP member just confessed. And he should be. ZDF's final poll (Politbarometer) was released, and the race could not be tighter. At the moment, Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union is holding steady at 40 percent. Its junior partner, the FDP, is at 5.5 percent. (By most accounts, a combined 46 percent is needed to form a coalition government.) The opposition Social Democrats are at 27 percent. The Greens have plummeted to 9 percent. The ex-Communist die Linke is at 8.5 percent. And the recently formed anti-euro Alternative for Germany (AfD) stands at 4 percent, though others are more certain it will meet the Bundestag's 5 percent threshold for representation. Germans of all stripes are bracing for another grand coalition of the CDU and the SPD. Then again, 34 percent of voters are still undecided.
The biggest mystery of this election surrounds the AfD. For as it turns out, a significant number of Germans are still upset with the bailout of Greece. It's true that one of Merkel's great achievements was convincing most Germans that rescuing the Greeks was the right thing to do. But not everyone was convinced. Economics professors formed the backbone of the Alternative for Germany party, and a few former CDU officials joined in. Its supporters recognize that, unlike the Pirate party (free the Internet!), the AfD has experience and intellect on its side. And while voters may be embarrassed to admit to pollsters that they favor the AfD, they'll be free to vote their conscience behind that curtain.
Needless to say, the CDU finds this unnerving, for its their voters who may end up drawn away, keeping them at 40 percent or even lower. The FDP is also threatened by the Alternative—roughly 30 percent of Free Democrats would rather Greece be kicked out of the EU. On the other hand, Kai Klose, a Green party member in Hesse's state legislature and its economic policy spokesman, is not scared of the AfD in the least. "The AfD is right-wing populist and similar to the Freedom party in Austria," says Klose (who resembles a shorter and younger version of writer-comedian Stephen Merchant). "They are playing on the fears of the populace." Klose expects the Alternative to draw votes mostly from the right but also from die Linke because of its populist rhetoric.
In a way, the Greens have now become part of the establishment, having been in government from 1998 to 2005. (Another indicator is how Klose is dressed—white button-down shirt, blue blazer, and jeans.) He complains that everyone expresses support for wind energy (Germany has the most solar panels per capita in a nation that's often cloudy). But when it comes to placing those turbines, Germans invoke the NIMBY rule—or as Democratic consultant Joe Hansen prefers, BANANA: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.
The closeness of the election was symbolized by our group's morning itinerary. This FDP-sponsored study group was taken around Wiesbaden by a Green (Klose) who then stumbled upon an SPD rally starring chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück while an argument broke out between a Green and a member of the Pirate party—all before we attended an afternoon FDP rally in Frankfurt starring the 40-year-old vice chancellor Phillip Rösler (adopted from Vietnam), main candidate Rainer Brüderle (who left his raincoat on while delivering his speech), and the one-and-only Hans-Dietrich Genscher. The 86-year-old former foreign minister pleaded with supporters to get out and vote. He wished he had the chance to vote in 1949 but was in the Soviet sector at the time. It was a moving moment until one of the Americans asked if the "old man on stage was Strom Thurmond's brother."