Sun, Sep 18, 2005 - Page 6 News List

German rivals vie for crucial votes on polling day

AFP , BERLIN

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his challenger Angela Merkel launched into the final day of the German election campaign yesterday championing future visions for Europe's biggest economy.

Polls show that Merkel is well on her way to becoming Germany's first woman chancellor in today's election, but a resurgent Schroeder may keep her from forming a government with her preferred partner, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP).

With between 20 and 30 percent of the electorate still undecided, Merkel and Schroeder were zig-zagging the country in the final hours defending their plans to jumpstart the economy and put the 4.7 million unemployed back to work.

The race is so close that both main parties have broken with tradition and will campaign right up to when polling stations close this evening.

Merkel told supporters of her Christian Union alliance (CDU/CSU) at a rally late Friday that Germans had "lost confidence" in Schroeder and his Social Democratic Party (SPD).

"He announced he would create 2 million jobs but what do we have now? One and a half million fewer people in work," Merkel told a crowd gathered in a giant circus tent in Berlin.

The former physicist from East Germany said her party and the FDP deserved a chance to jumpstart the struggling economy.

"Red-green is history, CDU/CSU and the FDP are the future," she said, using the nickname for the current coalition.

Chancellor Schroeder told thousands of party faithful in an almost simultaneous speech in Berlin that the Christian Democrats would destroy the country's "social solidarity."

His voice cracking after more than 100 campaign rallies, Schroeder said Merkel was "willing, but not able" to lead the country and that only he could solve its deep-seated economic problems without putting the burden on the poor.

"We had to explain to voters that we can only maintain our social welfare system if we reform it," Schroeder said in defense of his controversial economic reform package known as Agenda 2010.

"That was a necessary process that I believe and know was right."

Schroeder acknowledged that cuts to benefits he introduced had cost him political support, particularly within his own party.

But he said the reforms were finally beginning to bear fruit and bring down the crippling unemployment rate of more than 11 percent.

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