German Candidates Break Election Tradition
Sep 17 10:31 AM US/Eastern

Associated Press Writer


Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his conservative challenger both broke with long tradition against campaigning on election eve Saturday, heading to Germany's most populous state to stump for support in what has become a tight national vote.

Amid polls showing some 25 percent of voters still undecided, Schroeder and Angela Merkel were in North Rhine-Westphalia to push their competing visions.

Schroeder touched on all of his major themes in a 20-minute speech to 10,000 people in Recklinghausen, highlighting his opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the development of closer ties with France and Russia as foreign policy triumphs.

Merkel likely would move Germany back closer to the United States, its longtime security partner from the Cold War.

His voice harsh from the campaign trail, Schroeder defended his limited tax cuts and trims in long-term jobless benefits while criticizing Merkel's proposals to streamline the tax system, make it easier for small companies to fire people and loosen the rigid labor market.

He urged supporters of his left-of-center Social Democratic Party to bring out any undecided voters they know.

"Think about bringing grandma and grandpa with you _ but only if they're going to vote for the SPD," he said.

In Bonn, Merkel, leader of the Christian Democrats, pushed her plans to create jobs and accelerate economic reforms, emphasizing that the Social Democrats' rule has seen the number of jobless rise above 5 million for the first time since World War II. The unemployment rate for Europe's largest economy is now 11.4 percent.

Germany's economy grew a sluggish 1.6 percent last year after three years of almost no growth, which has been a drag on all of Europe.

"Vote for change because Germany needs a future," Merkel told a cheering crowd of some 7,000.

Recent polls put Merkel's Christian Democrats well ahead, but Schroeder's Social Democrats have made up enough ground in the last weeks that it might become impossible for her to form her preferred coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats.

That has led to widespread speculation that the Christian Democrats instead may be forced into a "grand coalition" with Schroeder's party _ an uneasy alliance that almost certainly would exclude Schroeder and many fret might lead to deadlock.

Merkel told voters Saturday that a grand coalition was the last thing Germany needed. She played on fears Schroeder might try to hold on to power by expanding his alliance with the Green party by adding the new Left Party _ a combination of disgruntled left-wing former Social Democrats and the old East German communist party.

Schroeder has ruled out such a coalition, but Merkel suggested he might not have the power to avoid it, pointing out that the chancellor called for the early election because he felt he needed his mandate reinforced.

"The SPD doesn't listen to Schroeder. That's why we're having new elections," she said.

A poll by the Forsa institute, carried out between Monday and Friday, put support for the Christian Democrats at between 41 percent and 43 percent, with the Free Democrats between 7 percent and 8 percent _ possibly enough to form a majority together.

The survey of 2,004 people put Schroeder's Social Democrats between 32 percent and 34 percent, with his coalition partner, the Greens, at 6 percent to 7 percent. The Left Party polled between 7 percent and 8 percent. The margin of error was 2.5 percentage points.

"It's going to be a photo finish," Klaus-Peter Schoeppner, head of the Emnid polling institute, told Bild newspaper Saturday.

If the Christian Democrats and Free Democrats are able to form a coalition government, it is widely believed Merkel would seek to strengthen relations with the United States, Germany's longtime security partner from the Cold War. She also could loosen the ties with France that Schroeder cultivated as his opposition to the war in Iraq made him unwelcome in the White House.

With the Forsa poll showing a quarter of voters undecided, other major parties joined Merkel and Schroeder in putting aside the German tradition of suspending campaigning the day before elections. Free Democrats candidate Guido Westerwelle spoke at a rally in Dortmund and the Greens' Joschka Fischer rallied voters in Hamburg.

"We're fighting until 5:59 p.m. on Sunday," the minute before polls close, Greens party head Claudia Roth pledged Friday.

On Frankfurt's busy Zeil shopping area, party activists barraged thousands of people at the city's weekly farmers' market with pamphlets and flags.

Social Democrat supporters handed out chocolates wrapped in red foil _ the party color _ with the slogan, "Germany remains socially just." The Christian Democrats passed out flyers saying Merkel and the Christian Democrats are the real leaders for Germany.

Following their stops in North Rhine-Westphalia, both Merkel and Schroeder were heading to Frankfurt, Germany's financial capital, for more rallies.