NEURUPPIN, Germany – Lawmaker Dagmar Ziegler campaigns in this former Communist East German town, handing out pens with her party's logo and slices of homemade cake to shoppers willing to stop for a chat. But as Germany heads into its Sunday general election, she still finds herself having to explain not only whom to vote for — but how.
"We have to explain to many people what a ballot looks like," she said. "And we have to mobilize lots of people who haven't voted in recent years."
Her success and that of thousands of party workers in drumming up a strong turnout in the election could be crucial in determining how Germany is governed for the next four years.
With the polls showing Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right coalition neck-and-neck with the left-leaning opposition, every vote counts.
Ziegler represents Neuruppin and surrounding communities in the national parliament for the Social Democratic Party. Her party tends to fare better when turnout is high, according to Ulrich von Alemann, a retired professor of politics at Duesseldorf University.
Yet in this wind-swept town of 30,000 an hour's drive northwest of Berlin, many seem willing to relinquish their political voice. The memory of compulsory voting under Communism has left older voters cynical about the electoral process.
"People are tired of voting," said Marina Scherer, who comes to Neuruppin's market twice a week to sell preserves made with fruit from the family orchards.
"Before the Berlin Wall fell, we had to vote, even though there wasn't much choice. They used to carry the ballot boxes round to each house," said Scherer as she plucked elderberries from their twigs while a trickle of market visitors walked by.
Voter fatigue has left its mark even in parts of Germany that never experienced Communism.
Although voter participation in Germany is generally higher than in the United States and many other democratic countries, turnout nationwide has steadily declined over the past 40 years.
West German turnout peaked at about 91 percent in 1972. By the time of the country's first election after reunification in 1990, turnout had fallen to 77.8 percent. During the last national ballot in 2009, the national average stood at nearly 71 percent, a historic low.
Here in Neuruppin, the 2009 turnout was even lower — just short of 63 percent. Part of that may have been due to differences in the way Germans who grew up under Communism view democratic institutions from their fellow citizens in the west.
"Voters in eastern Germany haven't absorbed the democratic culture all their life in the way people in the west have, and so they are more skeptical about politics," von Alemann said.
Experts see another reason in the fact that many in the east have missed out on the country's recent economic success. Joblessness in the east is more than twice as high as in the affluent states of Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg, where voter turnout is higher.
Scherer said that despite multiple choices on her ballot, she doesn't believe any party will deliver what she wants: a secure, well-paid job for herself and her husband, a road worker.
Her distrust extends to Merkel, who grew up not far from Neuruppin.
"She came from the east, she should know what things are like here but she's lost touch with the people," Scherer said.
Her opinion of Peer Steinbrueck, the Social Democrats' main candidate whose whistle-stop tour of the country included a brief appearance Thursday in Neuruppin, is no better. "They come here for 10 minutes and then they leave," she said.
Helmut Grabe, an unemployed plumber, said he didn't yet know whom he would vote for.
"But Steinbrueck, he's greedy," said Grabe, 64, referring to revelations last year that the Social Democratic challenger had received more than 1 million euros ($1.35 million) over three years from speaking engagements.
Hours earlier, Steinbrueck himself appealed to voters in Neuruppin to go to the polls on Sunday.
"My plea is that you use your right to vote," he told about 100 people who had come to have breakfast with the candidate.
For Ziegler, the local lawmaker, the townspeople's reluctance to cast their ballot is a mystery.
"In 1989 we went onto the streets to demand a vote in a democratic election," she said.
Her party is campaigning to lower the voting age to 16 from 18, in the hope of increasing voter turnout. Merkel's conservatives are opposed to the idea.
Frank Jordans can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/wirereporter