Germans vote in close-fought election


  • World
  • Sunday, 18 Sep 2005

By James Mackenzie

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germans were voting on Sunday in a nail-bitingly close and often bitterly fought election that will set the agenda for reform of Europe's largest economy. 

The Christian Democrats (CDU) under Angela Merkel have consistently led the opinion polls and she has been generally expected to become chancellor, displacing Gerhard Schroeder, whose centre-left government has held power for seven years. 

The hand of Conservative challenger Angela Merkel, leader of Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is pictured as she casts her vote in the country's general election at a polling station in Berlin September 18, 2005. (REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)

But with many of the 62 million voters undecided on the eve of the vote, it was unclear if she could muster enough support to form the centre-right coalition she says is needed to push through deep reforms of Germany's ailing economy. 

"It's going to be a thriller," said Christl Schulz, one of a group dressed in traditional Bavarian costume who were voting before going to church in Brunnthal, south of Munich. 

If Merkel cannot form the ruling alliance she wants, she will probably be forced to share power with Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD) in a "grand coalition" markets fear could stall reforms Schroeder himself began and Merkel wants to accelerate. 

"I was very confused over how to vote. It's never been so hard," said Bettina Quentin, 39, a health worker casting her vote at a school in the east of Berlin. 

For Germany and the rest of Europe, the stakes are high and for a new leader, the challenge of dealing with near-record jobless numbers and strained public finances will be daunting. 

Surveys indicate that most Germans believe their country must adapt if it is to keep the prosperity built up since the end of World War Two -- but are deeply uncertain about how far reform should go and how the burden should be shared. "We need change so that Germany can get back on its feet," said Ursula Becker, a 79 year-old pensioner casting her vote in the Sachsenhausen district of Frankfurt. 

"In Europe we were always among the first-ranking countries. We don't always have to be the first but we must be among the first." 

CANDIDATES VOTE 

Schroeder and his wife Doris cast their votes in a blaze of flashlights at a polling station within walking distance of their home in Hanover just after 11 a.m. (0900 GMT). 

He made a joking show of looking over the screen as his wife filled out her vote card before leaving arm-in-arm with her, making no statement to waiting reporters. 

Merkel voted in central Berlin after midday, surrounded by a scrum of yelling cameramen, together with her husband Joachim Sauer, an academic chemist famous for shunning the media glare. 

By 2 p.m. (1200 GMT), 41.9 percent of eligible voters had cast their votes, slightly fewer than at the same point in 2002. 

A provisional result is expected in the early hours of Monday but if it is close, the final outcome could depend on one district in the eastern city of Dresden where polling has been delayed until Oct. 2 because of the death of a candidate. 

The polls were closing at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT), and the first exit polls were due to be announced immediately afterwards. 

Victory would make Merkel, an unglamorous but determined 51-year-old from the formerly communist east, one of the most powerful leaders in Europe 15 years after she entered politics following the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

But Schroeder, 61, has thrown himself into campaigning with a drive that has rocked his opponents and raised the possibility that the SPD may be able to salvage something from the election, even if he himself steps down. 

His "Agenda 2010" reforms to welfare and labour market rules have been the most ambitious attempt to overhaul the social security system in decades. 

He has stood on his record in keeping Germany out of the Iraq war, appealed to Germans' deep attachment to the principle of solidarity and social balance and attacked the conservatives as cold and selfish and favouring the rich. 

Merkel has accused him of botching his own reforms and lacking ideas for the future, contrasting Germany with more prosperous regions such as Scandinavia. 

But Schroeder's reforms, backed by the CDU, have sparked bitter resentment as well, helping to foster the mood of uncertainty that could deny Merkel a majority of her own. 

(Additional reporting by Alexandra Hudson, Valdis Wish and Iain Rogers, Krista Hughes in Frankfurt and Michael Able in Munich) 

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