In a recent German political cartoon, one man says to another: "So, if this Stoiber wins, will the capital become Munich?"
Berlin, of course, is Germany's capital. Munich, the capital of Germany's southern state of Bavaria, is home to Edmund Stoiber, its prime minister and the rising conservative challenger for Germany's national leadership in autumn elections
If the prim, no-nonsense Mr. Stoiber, a rightward-leaning technocrat, were to take over the chancellor's office in Berlin from Germany's present leader, Gerhard Schroder, he would be the first Bavarian to lead the country since World War II.
Stoiber's party leads in polls by 4 to 6 percentage points. If his party, the conservative Christian Democrats, triumphs in September, a right-wing coalition could oust the center-left Social Democratic-led government from power, reflecting a trend toward rightist parties across Europe.
Were Stoiber's party to win on Sept. 22, he would net an honor that had for decades eluded Stoiber's political mentor, the powerful postwar Bavarian political boss, Franz-Josef Strauss.
Despite Stoiber's impressive track record in running Bavaria's regional economy, the strongest in Germany today, the thought of the austere, silver-haired technocrat at the helm of the country doesn't sit well with many Germans. Northern Germans, in particular, bristle at his style and conservative brand of politics. Although his party leads the Social Democrats in the polls, the same surveys show him trailing Chancellor Schroder in popularity by about 15 percentage points. Even in southern Germany, Stoiber's ratings fall below those of Schroder.
"The problem's not that northern Germans see Stoiber as a provincial Bavarian politician running around in lederhosen," says political scientist Michael Werz of Hannover University, "but rather that in general he comes off as unfriendly, stiff, and overly bureaucratic. He's highly unpopular, but he can still win."
In the country's parliamentary system, Germans vote for parties, not individual candidates.
The current chancellor may strike Germans as more affable and easy-going but they are unhappy with his management of the economy. In 1998, Schroder ran on a platform to slash the country's enormous jobless rolls. Germany's unemployment rate is among the highest in Western Europe. Schroder promised to bring down unemployment under 3.5 million, to about 7 percent, over four years - or quit. Four years later, he hasn't brought down unemployment, and he hasn't quit. Just under four million people - 9.5 percent of the population - are now without jobs. Joblessness in eastern Germany stands at nearly 18 percent, the highest since German unification in 1991.
"People who four years ago voted for Schroder, now are simply fed up," says Dag Harbach, owner of a Berlin events and promotion agency.
Stoiber charges that the economic debacle is "essentially homemade" and that "proper and necessary reforms have been put off for years." But he has remained coy about the nature of the reforms he would carry out.
The conservatives know that the economy is the current government's Achilles heel.But Stoiber also acknowledges that he has an …