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Battle for votes as German election gets tighter

world Updated: Sep 25, 2009 15:03 IST

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her rivals scrambled for last minute votes on Friday before a weekend 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, 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 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 per cent with the Free Democrats on 13 per cent -- 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 per cent, 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 people eligible to vote reportedly still undecided and the opinion polls historically imprecise, the parties were scrapping for every ballot.

Steinmeier was hoping to galvanise his supporters for a last-ditch push at a rally at Berlin's famous Brandenburg Gate later on Friday while Merkel, currently in Washington 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.

For their part, the CDU has launched a "72-hour final campaign" in the run-up to Sunday's election, with general secretary Ronald Pofalla saying: "This election is going to be decided in the final metres."

"The number of undecided voters is high ... we are going to use these last important hours and mobilise all our strength," Pofalla added.

But with Germany facing its worst year-on-year economic slump in modern history this year, a recent survey by business daily Handelsblatt showed that unemployment and the recession were the top concerns of German voters.

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 euros (11 dollars), which the CDU rejects.

Germany is slowly getting itself back on its feet following its severe recession and the economy expanded 0.3 per cent in the second quarter.

In addition, forward-looking indicators in recent months have suggested brighter times ahead, with the GfK institute's consumer confidence index for September rising to a year high on 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.

And awaiting the winner of Sunday's election are several economic headaches, including a record debt mountain, a likely rise in unemployment and stagnating consumption.

With two days to go, tension is mounting and the early exit poll results, expected around 1600 GMT on Sunday, could well prompt a nailbiting period of waiting while possible coalitions emerge.

"A poll by Forsa showed that some 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 from Goldman Sachs.

"In any case there seems to be quite some potential for a surprise."