- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 11, 2005

BERLIN — Germany’s political race has tightened, with polls showing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder within six or seven points of conservative challenger Angela Merkel, though few think he can catch up before the election Sunday.

A poll released Saturday by the Emnid survey group showed Mr. Schroeder’s center-left Social Democrats (SDP) with 34.5 percent support and Mrs. Merkel’s conservative alliance with 40.5 percent. The poll was in line other major surveys.

Such a result could force the winner to share power in a “grand coalition” of the two biggest parties. Such an outcome could lead to policy gridlock in the world’s third-largest economy.

As the contest tightens, the gloves have come off.

“You’re history, Herr Chancellor,” Mrs. Merkel told Mr. Schroeder during a parliamentary debate last week in which the two accused each other of lying to the electorate.

Mr. Schroeder’s fourth wife, Doris, said Mrs. Merkel didn’t embody the experience of most women because she never had children, and accused her of failing to help working mothers during her time as family minister in the 1990s.

A tireless campaigner, Mr. Schroeder, 61, has been leaping onto stages in market squares across the country, punching the air, making victory signs and exhorting listeners not to hand power to a woman whose reforms would plunge the country into “social coldness.”

One commentator in the country’s best-selling newspaper, Bild, likened the chancellor to a bloodied boxer stumbling around the ring and refusing to give up.

Mr. Schroeder told Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper Friday: “I don’t deny the other side is still ahead in opinion polls. But things are changing. When people are asked who they’d rather have as chancellor, there’s a clear majority for me. … A lot is in flux, and anything is still possible.”

An Infratest survey released Thursday showed 54 percent would rather have Mr. Schroeder as chancellor, up six points from last week, with Mrs. Merkel’s ratings down seven points at 35 percent.

But Germans vote for parties, and Mr. Schroeder’s SDP has suffered a dramatic slump in polls in the past two years since he embarked on his unpopular Agenda 2010 of jobless benefit cuts.

The reforms have failed to cut unemployment, stuck above 10 percent, and many feel a change of government is needed to pave the way for more radical changes under Mrs. Merkel.

Mrs. Merkel’s main problem is her decision to name Paul Kirchhof, a professor at Heidelberg University and former constitutional court judge, as shadow finance minister.

Mr. Kirchhof’s plans for an abolition of hundreds of tax breaks and for a flat-rate tax have unsettled voters and provided a target for Mr. Schroeder, who has accused him of wanting to treat Germany as a “laboratory guinea pig” for his experiments.

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