BERLIN, AP -Conservative challenger Angela Merkel headed into Sunday”s election with a good chance of ousting Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder but with many voters undecided as polls opened, she might not win a convincing mandate to pursue her vision of Germany”s economic revitalization and foreign policy.
Though polls heading into the parliamentary elections gave Merkel a good chance to emerge as the country”s first woman chancellor, a resurgence by Schroeder”s Social Democrats was expected to produce a close contest — one that might deny either a strong position.
Polls opened at 2 a.m. EDT Sunday across Germany, with turnout expected to pick up as the day went along. Polls close at noon EDT with partial results expected several hours later.
Both candidates ignored a long German tradition of not campaigning on the final day before an election and traveled the country trying to gain a last-minute edge.
Schroeder reminded voters of his opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq and his commitment to the social welfare system, while Merkel, a proponent of closer ties with Washington, said business tax cuts and a looser government hand are needed to get the sluggish economy going.
Voters will choose lawmakers for the 598-seat lower house of parliament, which elects the chancellor to head the government. If no party wins a majority, as is expected Sunday, party leaders negotiate trying to form a coalition represents more than 50 percent of the seats.
Seeking to come back from the underdog spot for the second straight election, Schroeder showed no signs of conceding defeat for his left-of-center Social Democrats.
"My future is to remain German chancellor," he told a cheering crowd of 20,000 in Frankfurt.
With opinion polls indicating a quarter of voters had not made up their minds, Schroeder made sure to drum in the message that his party needed every vote.
"Think about bringing grandma and grandpa with you," Schroeder told a crowd of 10,000 in Recklinghausen, his voice hoarse from campaigning. "But only if they”re going to vote for the SPD."
Merkel, leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Party, stopped at the International Auto Show in Frankfurt to tout her plans to create jobs and accelerate economic reforms, telling automakers that Germans need money to buy cars.
Earlier in Bonn, she emphasized that during the Social Democrats” seven-year rule, Germany saw the number of jobless rise above 5 million for the first time since World War II and now has an unemployment rate of 11.4 percent.
"Vote for change because Germany needs a future," Merkel told about 7,000 supporters.
Europe”s biggest economy grew at a sluggish 1.6 percent last year after three years of almost no growth, which has put a drag on all of the continent.
Polls put Merkel”s Christian Democrats ahead, but Schroeder”s party had made up enough ground in the last few weeks that it might deny her the ability to form her preferred coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats.
There was widespread speculation the Christian Democrats could be forced into a "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats — an uneasy alliance that almost certainly would exclude Schroeder and that many people worry would lead to parliamentary gridlock.
Merkel told voters Saturday a grand coalition was the last thing Germany needed and played on fears that Schroeder might try to form a coalition including 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.
In Recklinghausen, Schroeder touched on all of his major themes in a 20-minute speech, highlighting his opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and his development of closer ties with France and Russia as foreign policy triumphs.
He also defended his labor market and welfare reforms while criticizing Merkel”s plans to streamline the tax system to ease the burden on businesses and to take labor reforms further.
If the Christian Democrats and Free Democrats did form a government, it is widely believed Merkel would turn Germany back toward the United States, its longtime partner from the Cold War. However, she also has said she would not send German troops to the U.S.-led coalition force in Iraq.
She also could loosen the ties with France that Schroeder cultivated as his opposition to the war in Iraq made him unwelcome in Washington.
Merkel also has said she would change Germany”s position on Turkish membership in the European Union, which Schroeder has lobbied hard for. Merkel prefers proposing a limited "privileged partnership" with Turkey instead of full EU membership.
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 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 poll had an error margin of 2.5 percentage points.