Everyone is calling West Germany's election on Sunday one of the most important - perhaps the most important - in its democratic history since World War II. Why?
* Because US-Soviet negotiations on reducing nuclear missiles in Europe have virtually been on hold awaiting the election outcome.
* Because the choice for German voters is reminiscent of three decades ago when the question was how firmly they would participate in the Atlantic alliance.
* Because on the domestic side, during a time of high unemployment, they are being offered general options - more reliance on the free market or more government intervention - whose effects could be felt wherever the powerful German economy has impact.
* Because the election represents a test of German democratic stability after national consensus appears to have diminished and before a new consensus has emerged.
The West German parliamentary election system carefully provides for representation of diversity while screening out the mischievous fragmentary groups of earlier German history. The manifestation of this diversity within a basic unity can be seen as a sign of democracy continuing to flourish in a degree that many might not have predicted. The broad context of present stresses and stability, of doubts and hopes, is explored by Monitor correspondent Elizabeth Pond in a series of four articles, ''West Germany: The search for identity,'' which concluded yesterday.
The polls have been favoring Chancellor Kohl, whose Christian Democratic Party strongly supports his country's US and alliance ties and specifically the deployment of US missiles on German soil. Challenger Hans-Jochen Vogel of the Social Democrats seems readier to perhaps loosen such ties and to question the missile deployment. An irony is that the Social Democrats' former leader, Chancellor Schmidt, was an architect of the missile plan. Now his party is in the uncomfortable position of having to resist being painted red by a shameless Soviet campaign in support of Vogel against Kohl.
Late reports suggest that last-minute voting switches might help the small anti-nuclear Green Party. Here is yet another reason that the election is being watched so closely. The Greens are a conglomeration of advocates for peace, the environment, and other causes trying to get over the 5 percent threshold for parliamentary representation. One poll gives them 6.3 percent (more than the established Free Democrats). However their views look to the German majority, such a showing on Sunday would say something about the possibilities of grass-roots political action to make a point of view heard.