Merkel bullish as Germans head to the polls

27th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

Heightened security after warnings from Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and other Islamic militants over Germany's increasingly bloody mission in Afghanistan also cast a shadow over voting.

Berlin -- Germans voted in a national election Sunday with Angela Merkel favourite to win a new mandate to drag Europe's top economy out of recession and as the country agonises over its role in Afghanistan.

Final polls indicated the conservative Merkel was near certain to secure four more years as chancellor, but her hopes of forming a new centre-right coalition with a business-friendly party hung by a thread.

Heightened security after warnings from Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and other Islamic militants over Germany's increasingly bloody mission in Afghanistan also cast a shadow over voting.

Merkel wants to dump the Social Democrats (SPD), her current "grand coalition" partners, for an alliance with the Free Democrats (FDP) that she says is needed to pull Germany out of its worst downturn in 60 years.

But her Christian Democrat party's lead has fallen in the final weeks of the campaign. A Forsa survey on Friday put her preferred coalition on 47 percent of the vote, which experts say may not be enough to form a government.

The most likely alternative would be another grand coalition.

Nevertheless, Merkel, Forbes magazine's most powerful woman on the planet for the past four years, said she was confident of putting together the alliance she wants.

"I am always optimistic," she told the mass-circulation Bild am Sonntag newspaper.

"Voters will decide tomorrow how quickly we get out of this crisis," Merkel told a final rally on Saturday. "We are fighting for the German jobs of the future."

Her SPD challenger, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was also upbeat as he cast his ballot.

"I am very confident we will have a strong SPD. A strong SPD that will be able to lead the government from the top this time," said a beaming Steinmeier in Berlin.

But awaiting the winner of the pivotal election is a bulging in-tray of problems.

Unemployment is forecast to shoot higher, and everything from health care to education to Germany's bloated social security system are in dire need of reform. German public finances are in tatters and its population ageing fast.

Abroad, the main challenge is Afghanistan, where Germany has around 4,200 troops in the NATO force ensnared in the eighth year of an ever bloodier struggle with insurgents.

The mission, opposed by most German voters, may become a major domestic headache for Merkel if violence worsens in the north of the war-ravaged country where Germany's soldiers are based.

Security across Germany has been tight in the run-up to election day following a series of threats from Islamic militants over the country's presence in Afghanistan.

Germany has never suffered an attack by Islamic extremists, but authorities fear it is only a matter of time, with several suspected plots uncovered and Internet warnings a regular occurrence, including from German-born Muslims.

With all of the main parties in the Bundestag lower house supporting the deployment, with the exception of the far-left Die Linke, the Afghan mission has failed to register as much of an issue in a largely uninspiring campaign.

But the war may become a battleground in the next parliament, particularly if the SPD finds itself in opposition.

If there is not sufficient effort to build up the Afghan army and police, "the US will have a second Vietnam, and Germany its first," the Berliner Zeitung daily said in an editorial last week.

Troops in Afghanistan have already registered their votes by postal ballot before home polling stations opened Sunday.

The first exit poll results were due at around 1600 GMT.

However, due to Germany's complex electoral arithmetic, the initial outcome could prove unclear.

Experts estimate that Merkel and the FDP may need as much as 48 percent of votes to form a coalition, possibly turning election night into a cliffhanger.


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