Germans were voting in a tight race yesterday between conservative challenger Angela Merkel, who has pledged to reform the moribund economy and bring Germany closer to the US, and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who has touted his country's role as a European leader and counterbalance to the US.
Merkel began the day with a good chance of becoming the country's first female chancellor. But whether a victory would give the former physicist the convincing mandate she needs to forge ahead with tax and labor market reforms remained unknown.
For some voters, her plan to patch up relations with Washington, which frayed after Schroeder's refusal to back the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, has resonated, as has her position that Turkey should not be allowed full membership in the 25-nation EU.
"A country like Turkey just doesn't belong in the European community," voter Torsten Quade, 41, said. "We're already going to let in countries like Romania and Bulgaria, and this is already too much because of how far behind they are."
But other voters said they wanted Schroeder and his Social Democrats to stay in power because of his efforts to keep the country out of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and his push for diplomacy with Iran.
"When you have a son coming of military age, this makes it even more important to vote for a government that isn't eager to go to war," said Stefan Deutscher, a 38-year-old business consultant, who voted in Berlin.
He said he blamed Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, for the high unemployment in Germany -- currently at 11.4 percent -- saying: "I dislike the CDU because they passed on a messed-up country to the current government and are now blaming them for it."
The CDU, with Helmut Kohl as its chancellor, led Germany from 1982-1998, during which the country was reunited and unemployment began to rise.
In his hometown of Hannover, Schroeder and his wife, Doris, voted as photographers and cameramen recorded the moment.
The couple walked to the polling place inside a school near their home. She was optimistic about a win by the Social Democratic Party, or SPD, noting that the good weather was an omen.
"My husband always says if the sun is happy, then the SPD has it made." Schroeder did not speak to reporters after he voted.
Merkel cast her vote in Berlin, joined by her husband, chemist Joachim Sauer. Neither spoke to reporters who trailed the pair.
If Merkel's Christian Democrats cannot win a majority with her preferred partners -- the small, pro-business Free Democrats -- she could be forced to share power in a coalition with Schroeder's Social Democrats.
The most recent poll, carried out by the Forsa institute between Monday and Friday, put support for the Christian Democrats at between 41 and 43 percent, with the Free Democrats between 7 and 8 percent. That left it very much open whether they would win a majority in parliament.
If they do, Merkel -- aided by her party's control of the upper house of parliament -- will be able to move ahead with proposals to streamline the tax system, make it easier for small companies to fire people and loosen the rigid labor market in a bid to tackle unemployment and the troublingly low rates of economic growth.
If they do not garner a majority, many think Merkel's party would have to form a "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats, probably without Schroeder, which would likely tame her plans.