l YESTERDAY'S decision by the German Supreme Court that the general election already planned for September 18 can go ahead (one year earlier than usual) was somethimng of a formality. The campaign has been under way for over a month now and the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) are holding their pre-election convention this weekend. Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, the leader of the centreleft Social Democrats (SPD) engineered his own defeat in parliament in July in order, he claimed, to win a new mandate for welfare and labour market reforms after suffering a series of defeats in state elections. Thus far his suicide tactics have not paid off. The CDU with its new leader Angela Merkel has a clear lead of about ten points in the opinion polls; but Frau Merkel, an uncharismatic and relatively inexperienced politician, is already showing signs of the pressure she is under. She will meet Herr Schroder in a face-to-face television debate on September 4, an encounter that might decide the outcome of the election. Personalities aside, the key issue of the election is the state of the becalmed German economy; national unemployment remains at around 10 per cent of the workforce and in the former East Germany, where Frau Merkel was born and began her political career, it stands at 20 per cent. When the German economic engine first began to slow down other EU countries, including Britain, assumed that they would benefit; however, it has become quite clear that the EU market needs a prosperous and competitive Germany if the whole market is to thrive and modernise itself. The CDU claims it can get Germany moving again with rightish economic reforms; the SPD makes the same claim for its refreshed leftish solutions and emphasizes that it is better able to persuade Germany's entrenched unions of the need for change. Provided Merkel makes no major blunder the CDU is likely to win; but Schroder is a wily campaigner and could yet return the SPD to power.