Schroeder, Merkel stump for Germans’ votes

BERLIN – Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and conservative challenger Angela Merkel kept on the road Saturday making election-eve appeals to the large number of undecided voters to back their competing visions for Germany’s economic revitalization and foreign policy.

Though polls heading into today’s 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.

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 today, party leaders negotiate, trying to form a coalition that 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.

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