Berlin: Germans voted in a national election on Sunday with Angela Merkel favourite to win a second mandate to tackle recession and ease fears over the country’s military role in Afghanistan.
Final surveys indicated the conservative Merkel was a shoo-in for four more years as chancellor, but her hopes of forming a hoped-for coalition with a business friendly party hang by a thread.
Heightened security after threats from Osama bin Laden and other Islamic militants to stage attacks also cast a shadow over voting.
Merkel wants to dump the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), her current “grand coalition” partner, 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 evaporated in the final weeks of the campaign. A Forsa survey on Friday putting her preferred coalition on 47% of the vote, which experts say may not be enough to form a government.
Nevertheless, Merkel, Forbes magazine’s most powerful woman on the planet for the past four years, said she was still 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.”
But in her second period in charge of Europe’s biggest economy, the 55-year-old pastor’s daughter from the former communist East Germany, known as “Angie”, faces daunting challenges.
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, Merkel’s 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 Afghanistan where Germany’s soldiers are based.
Security across Germany has been tight in the run-up to election day following threats from Islamic militants, including Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, warning of attacks over Germany’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 this election 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 at 0600 GMT.
A beaming Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Merkel’s SPD challenger and foreign minister, cast his vote in Berlin.
However, due to Germany’s complex electoral arithmetic, the initial results could prove unclear. Experts estimate that Merkel and the FDP may need as much as 48% of votes to form a coalition.
After what has been generally derided as a dull campaign, the final result is turning into a cliffhanger for Merkel.