In an 11th-hour scramble for votes before Sunday's election, West Germany's political parties are locked in a battle to woo new support or to consolidate their gains in the wake of conflicting poll results that have left politicians and voters confused.
Although most pundits predict that Chancellor Helmut Kohl will retain power on March 6, the hectic campaigning in these last days reflects a belief that many voters remain baffled or undecided about the election and that the opinion polls are too tainted by party leanings to be trusted.
This week, a survey by the conservative Allensbach Institute gave the Christian Democrat alliance 47.6 percent of the vote and indicated a remarkable recovery by their junior partner, the Free Democrats, who were shown with 8.3 percent. Meanwhile, the Social Democrats reputedly have plunged to 35.6 percent and the antinuclear environmental party, the Greens, has climbed to 8.1 percent.
Today, however, a new poll by the Hamburg Sample Institute showed the two major parties almost tied, giving the conservative coalition 43 percent and the Social Democrats 42 percent. It gave the Free Democrats and the Greens 6 percent each, which would be enough for both parties to clear the 5 percent hurdle the law requires to hold seats in parliament.
Such discrepancies have sparked charges that the major polling organizations' findings are distorted because they are funded by the major parties. Not only do the voters show signs of becoming exasperated by the wild fluctuations in survey results, but some of the politicians who popularized and paid for the polls express equal exasperation.
The Social Democrats' campaign manager, Peter Glotz, called the Allensbach poll this week an "open manipulation" intended to demoralize his party's voters. He suggested that West Germany should emulate France's example and adopt a law forbidding publication of any polls during the last four weeks before an election.
At the other end of the political spectrum, Edmund Stoiber, general secretary of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian version of the Christian Democrats, also complained about "the stinking manipulation of poll results."
One reason for the pollsters' conflicting figures is the way West Germany's electoral system works.
Each voter marks his ballot twice, once for a local candidate and once for the party of his choice. But only the second vote, for the political party, determines the distribution of seats in the Bundestag that will decide the makeup of a ruling coalition.
Lately, the Free Democrats and the Greens have appealed for "sympathy votes" in the critical second box on the ballots, seeking to capitalize on the erroneous conviction allegedly held by a third of the voters that their first choice on the ballot is the only one that counts and that the second vote is just a consolation prize.
The apparent success of this electoral pitch has provoked the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats into launching advertising campaigns in the newspapers and on radio and television urging voters to give both votes to their parties.
Formerly anxious to do all that it could to save the floundering fortunes of the Free Democrats, Kohl's Christian Democrats now seek to prevent the junior party from gaining so much support that it could complicate negotiations over Cabinet posts after the election.
Kohl's interest in seeing the Free Democrats win enough votes to return to parliament is predicated on his desire to form a broad, center-right ruling coalition that would curtail the influence of his rival within the conservative alliance, Franz Josef Strauss.
Strauss' Christian Social Union has attacked the Free Democrats for their handling of the economic and foreign ministries during their 13-year ruling partnership with the Social Democrats. The premier of Bavaria also has criticized Kohl for his lenient treatment of the Free Democrats.
Kohl has shifted from tacitly supporting the Free Democrats to an effort to capture as many second votes as possible, even at the risk of dragging the junior party perilously close to the 5 percent cutoff.
In a public appeal yesterday, Heiner Geissler, general secretary of the Christian Democrats, called upon his party's supporters "not to experiment with the second vote," because that vote will be the crucial factor in the election.
The Social Democrats similarly have suffered from the mistaken views of some of their backers, who planned to vote for the party's candidate in the local ballot but give their second vote to the Greens either in sympathy for their antinuclear, ecological views or from admiration of their attacks on the political establishment.
While Social Democrat officials believe that a large turnout for Sunday's election, which is expected to exceed 90 percent, will favor the large parties in terms of voting proportions, they feel that they have been unable to lure enough young voters away from the Greens to keep the party out of parliament.
These officials also doubt that they will overtake the Christian Democrats, even if they could achieve some sort of tacit coalition with the Greens.