Chancellor Angela Merkel wound up her campaign for a historic third term with an appeal to voters to back her defense of the euro as Social Democrat Peer Steinbrueck pledged to give Germany renewed direction.
The candidates delivered their final arguments on the eve of today’s federal election that will decide who takes the helm of Europe’s biggest economy and assumes the pre-eminent role in European policy making. Polls put Merkel’s Christian Democratic bloc ahead yet with no clear majority for a continued alliance with the Free Democrats. The anti-euro AfD party may also win seats, further complicating post-election coalition-building.
“Yes, it will be close,” Merkel said yesterday at the final rally of her campaign in Stralsund, the port city in her Baltic Sea constituency. “I said right from the start that every vote counts.” Steinbrueck, speaking to supporters in Frankfurt, said that Merkel and her government had repeatedly dodged issues of substance and in a matter of hours “you can throw them out.”
Voting goes from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., when German television networks ARD and ZDF release exit polls. Results based on partially counted ballots will be broadcast from about 6:15 p.m.
Germans are going to the polls to cast their verdict on the past four years of Merkel’s term that were dominated by Europe’s collective defense of the euro during the sovereign debt crisis in the 17-nation currency area that spread from Greece.
Merkel, 59, has delivered a campaign message that her policy of aid in return for reforms is the best recipe for Europe, citing the drop in German unemployment to a two-decade low and a budget that’s next-to-balanced. Steinbrueck, 66, her first-term finance minister, says she’s benefiting from her SPD predecessor’s policies and her austerity-first approach to Europe must be recalibrated to focus on spurring growth.
Steinbrueck, speaking to a crowd of about 7,000 in the financial capital yesterday, said that Germany under Social Democratic leadership would return to being a “good neighbor” in Europe, and cited the post-World War II era when Germany’s one-time victims “didn’t have to fear us anymore, and they experienced a trustworthy European partner.”
“There have been times when we have been helped -- back then it was called the Marshall Plan,” he said. “There have been times when these European countries stretched out their hand for us to participate in European unification.”
Merkel enjoys a personal approval rating of 50 percent to 27 percent for Steinbrueck, according to an Emnid poll for today’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper, yet German voters don’t elect the chancellor directly. Due to coalition calculus, she may strugge to continue her alliance with the FDP.
Merkel’s Christian Democratic bloc had 38-40 percent support in the last five opinion polls, while the Free Democrats led by Economy Minister Philipp Roesler had 5-6 percent. The SPD was at 26-28 percent and its Green party allies at 8-10 percent. That raises the prospect of a possible “grand coalition” of the two biggest parties, traditional rivals, as Merkel led in her first term from 2005 to 2009. Steinbrueck has said he won’t serve again under Merkel.
The anti-capitalist Left Party, which Steinbrueck also rejects as a governing partner, had 8.5-9 percent. The AfD, or Alternative for Germany, had 4-5 percent, at the 5 percent cusp needed to win seats.
CDU leaders including Thuringia Prime Minister Christine Lieberknecht have ruled out coalition talks with the AfD because of its anti-euro stance.
Steinbrueck reiterated his support for the euro in Frankfurt, saying that its demise would “throw back European unification by 20 to 30 years” and result in currency appreciation that would “destroy any business.”
His message throughout the campaign has been that Merkel’s government has done nothing to address areas including nursing care or pensions, while it is mismanaging the energy transition to renewables from nuclear power. He contrasted his proposals on rent controls, improving the education system and investing in infrastructure to Merkel’s “directionless” government.
Whereas Merkel denounces the tax-raising plans of the SPD and their Green party allies as a death knell for jobs, Steinbrueck says it is necessary to address a gap between the richer and poorer in German society that has widened as a result of Merkel’s inactivity.
“Where is the direction? Where is the compass for this country?” Steinbrueck said in Frankfurt, the biggest city in Hesse state, which is also voting for its regional assembly today. “Tomorrow night you can throw out the most inactive, backwards-looking, most divided -- yet pompous -- government since German reunification.”
Germany, the biggest source of the 496 billion euros ($671 billion) of bailout commitments to five euro nations, must continue providing support in exchange for their enacting austerity policies to boost competitiveness, Merkel says.
“We have to continue on this course,” Merkel said yesterday. “Stabilization in Europe is in the fundamental interests of Germans and secures German jobs.” She favors “a strong Europe, a successful Europe” and “in the next four years we have to work so that this wonderful continent continues to be successful,” she said.
Merkel, Germany’s first woman chancellor and the first from the formerly communist East, said that she’ll also give Germans “four more good years.”
“I won’t deny that I’m a bit excited about what the result will be,” she said.
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