Battle for votes as German race gets tighter
Barring a huge election day surprise Sunday, the popular Merkel is expected to win a second term at the helm of the world's number-two exporter.Berlin -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her rivals scrambled for last-minute votes 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 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 number-two exporter.
But the country was spooked by the third German-language video in a week by a militant believed to have links to Al-Qaeda, days after he threatened attacks in Germany over the country's military mission in Afghanistan.
After a broadly uninspiring campaign, the vote 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 percent with the Free Democrats on 13 percent -- 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 has climbed steadily in recent weeks to 26 percent, 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 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 Saturday.
"The CDU is getting more and more nervous," said Steinmeier late 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 euros (11 dollars), which the CDU rejects.
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 1600 GMT Sunday, could well prompt hours of nail-biting as possible coalitions emerge.
A new survey by the Emnid polling agency showed that Merkel remains popular among voters but that more Germans would on balance prefer another four years of the loveless "grand coalition" between the CDU and the SPD.
According to the poll, 49 percent of voters would prefer a grand coalition, compared to 38 percent sharing Merkel's preference for a combination of CDU and FDP.
Nearly seven out of 10 voters rated Merkel's performance as good or very good, the survey indicated.
"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 some 15 million voters were still undecided at the end of last week... In any case there seems to be quite some potential for a surprise," said Dirk Schumacher of Goldman Sachs.
Voters will have no excuse not to go to the polls Sunday as the weather is set to be sunny and dry.
"If the turn-out on Sunday does not meet expectations, it's not the weather's fault," said the weather service in a statement.