- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2005

BERLIN — Germany’s election rivals fought yesterday to win over an unprecedented 10 million undecided voters hours before an election in which Angela Merkel is expected to unseat Gerhard Schroeder to become the first female chancellor.

Mrs. Merkel, whose center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) have consistently led the opinion polls, also would be the first chancellor to have grown up in the formerly communist east if her alliance wins today’s vote.

It remains uncertain whether she will gain enough support to form the coalition she says is needed to push through in-depth reform of Germany’s sickly economy, or whether she will have to share power with Mr. Schroeder’s Social Democrats.

The last opinion polls on Friday gave the CDU and its liberal Free Democrat (FDP) allies a narrow majority. Their earlier hefty lead has been cut sharply by a barnstorming campaign effort from Mr. Schroeder.

Both leaders spoke at campaign rallies yesterday as the main parties defied tradition and pledged to fight for every vote right up until the close of polling.

“When you vote, I ask you to do so responsibly and think about who will bring Germany forward,” Mrs. Merkel told a rally in front of the cathedral in the former West German capital, Bonn.

With recent surveys showing as many as 10 million voters, or almost a sixth of the total, apparently yet to make up their minds, anything may still happen by the time voting ends at 6 p.m. today, when the first exit polls were due.

“At 20 percent-plus two days before the election, the number of undecided is higher than before any other general election,” Richard Hilmer, head of pollsters Infratest Dimap told the daily Die Welt yesterday.

The levels were testament both to what is at stake and the deep uncertainty many feel about the future.

Five million people are out of work, the pension system is facing crisis, schools and universities are in urgent need of investment and reform, while firms have stopped complaining about high costs and shifted many operations abroad.

Surveys suggest that most Germans accept that the system needs to change, but are uncertain about how far and how fast, a dilemma facing other European countries with similar welfare states.

“This means that the German election outcome will be the most important in decades, not just for Germany, but for Europe as a whole,” Barclays Capital economists Julian Callow and Thorsten Polleit wrote this past week.

Mr. Schroeder’s own “Agenda 2010” reforms, which have broken a reform logjam built up over decades under previous governments, already have begun to change the system in ways unimaginable a decade ago, much to the anger of many in his own party.

But he warned that more drastic changes under a conservative government would lead to a breakdown of social justice.

“The other side wants to deprive people of their rights,” he told a rally in the western town of Recklinghausen.

Policy issues have been obscured as the rival campaigns have flung accusations of lying and deception at each other and ridiculed opponents’ arguments.

But the stark personal contrast between the candidates has symbolized clearly the choice facing Germany.

Apparently at the end of his political career, Mr. Schroeder has fought the campaign of his life, shouting himself hoarse in rallies across Germany and using all the advantages a chancellor has to project an image of statesmanship and control.

He has stood on his record in keeping Germany out of the Iraq war, appealed to Germans’ deep attachment to the principle of solidarity and social balance, and attacked the conservatives as cold, unsocial friends to the rich.

Mrs. Merkel, determined and patient but a much less charismatic performer, has accused him of botching his own reforms and having no ideas for the future, contrasting Germany with more prosperous regions, such as Scandinavia.

She has pledged to raise the value-added tax and cut payroll costs, loosen hiring and firing rules, and open up Germany’s pay-bargaining system in a move that would weaken the power of the unions, saying that only more jobs can ensure social justice.

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