/ 25 September 2009

Merkel, rivals scramble for last-minute votes

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her rivals scrambled for last-minute votes on Friday before an election that will decide the coalition that must pull Europe’s top economy out of its worst post-war crisis.

Barring a huge election day surprise on Sunday, the popular Merkel — Forbes magazine’s world’s most powerful woman for the past four years — was expected to win a second term at the helm of the world’s second-largest exporter.

But the country was spooked again on Friday by a third video warning from militants believed to be linked to al-Qaeda threatening attacks in Germany over the country’s military mission in Afghanistan.

Following a broadly uninspiring campaign, the election is shaping up to be a cliffhanger to see if the conservative Merkel can ditch her current coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), to govern instead with the pro-business Free Democrats.

Latest polls show Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) on roughly 35% with the Free Democrats on 13%– enough, under Germany’s complex electoral arithmetic, to win a razor-thin majority in the country’s Parliament.

But the race is tightening, as the SPD have climbed steadily in recent weeks to 26%, following a better-than-expected showing by its candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier in a live TV debate.

And with roughly one quarter of the 62-million-strong electorate reportedly still undecided and the opinion polls historically imprecise, the parties were scrapping for every ballot.

Steinmeier hopes to galvanise supporters at a rally at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate later Friday while Merkel, currently in Pittsburgh for the G20 meeting, holds her final rally on Saturday.

”The CDU is getting more and more nervous,” said Steinmeier late on Thursday in Trier.

The conservatives have launched a ”72-hour final campaign”.

”This election is going to be decided in the final metres,” CDU general secretary Ronald Pofalla said.

”The number of undecided voters is high … we are going to use these last important hours and mobilise all our strength.”

But with Germany facing its worst economic slump since the war, a survey by business daily Handelsblatt showed that unemployment and the recession were voters’ top concerns.

Economic policy is one of the few areas the two main parties have clearly defined differences, with the CDU calling for tax cuts across the board and the SPD wanting to raise the tax rate for high-income earners.

Moreover, the SPD wants to introduce a nationwide minimum wage of around €7,50, which the CDU rejects.

Germany is slowly getting itself back on its feet following its severe recession and the economy expanded 0,3% in the second quarter.

In addition, recent indicators have suggested brighter times ahead, with the GfK institute’s consumer confidence index for September rising to a year high Friday.

However, as with many other issues, both candidates have struggled to claim credit for successes in economic policy as they hold joint responsibility for the administration’s policies.

Awaiting the election’s winner are several economic headaches, including a record debt mountain, a likely rise in unemployment and stagnating consumption.

Tension is mounting and the exit poll results, expected at 16.00GMT on Sunday, could well prompt hours of nailbiting as possible coalitions emerge.

”The person who wins will be the person who manages to transform the number of undecided into three or four percentage points,” polling expert Ulrich Eith told the Financial Times Deutschland.

”A poll by Forsa showed that about 15-million voters were still undecided at the end of last week. It is not clear whether one should assume some kind of normal distribution for these undecided voters,” said Dirk Schumacher of Goldman Sachs.

”In any case there seems to be quite some potential for a surprise.” — AFP