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By Paul Carrel and Tomasz Janowski
BERLIN (Reuters) - Call it the Angela Merkel effect. Less than two weeks before a national election many German voters still seem unable to get over the fact that the four-term chancellor is not running.
A survey by Allensbach institute https://reut.rs/3z5nOHr for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper showed this week that a record 40% of those planning to vote on Sept. 26 have not yet decided how, with most saying they were just not drawn to any of the contenders.
"None of them is convincing," said Janis Schulz, 35, from North Rhine-Westphalia, shrugging at the choice of candidates while smoking a cigarette in front of the Brandenburg Gate during a holiday in Berlin.
"Whoever you vote for will likely form a coalition, but you don't know who with," he added. "It's also difficult after Merkel. She brought calm - to Germany and to Europe."
In her 16 years in office, Merkel has steered Europe's largest economy through the global financial crisis, the refugee crisis and now the coronavirus pandemic, giving the Germans a much-needed sense of stability.
More of that stability is what Armin Laschet, Merkel's successor at the helm of her conservative Christian Democrats, and his Social Democrat rival Olaf Scholz are promising, but neither has managed to establish a commanding lead, with their respective parties polling around or just over 20%.
The Greens, who had a flying start to the campaign with their climate change agenda resonating with younger voters, have lost momentum and are now polling third.
'STUCK IN THE MIDDLE'
A separate Reuters survey showed that while a record number of voters chose to mail in their ballots this year, a majority of them continued to sit on the fence and had yet to send them.
The uncertainty has not translated into sizeable gains for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) or other fringe parties. Nor does it seem to have discouraged Germans from voting, with 87% of those canvassed by Allensbach saying they plan to cast their ballot, even if many say they do not see anyone they really trust and would be choosing a "lesser evil".
"Usually I vote for protest parties, but this time I'll vote properly. I think every vote counts this time," said Schulz.
The AfD stormed onto the national scene in 2017, harnessing anti-immigrant sentiment after Merkel's decision to open Germany's borders to almost one million asylum seekers in 2015.
But now, polling at around 10%, it appears to be stuck with the image of a single-issue, single-event party, said Carsten Nickel, managing director at London-based political risk advisory firm Teneo.
While Merkel is not seeking a fifth term, she remains a factor as voters weigh up who should shape Germany's future without her and who would be the most worthy successor - a choice they may feel both important and frustrating.
"What they see is either contenders who promise to do more of the same or those who are extremely clumsy, and they find themselves stuck in the middle," said Nickel.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)