German voters are going to the polls to elect a new parliament and decide whether social democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder or his conservative challenger, Angela Merkel, should lead the country during the next four years. Though polls show the conservatives are expected to win, the race could go down to the wire.
The weather was good across Germany, a sign, analysts say, that a high turnout can be expected for these elections that are seen as crucial, not only for Germany, but for the rest of Europe as well.
Mr. Schroeder called the poll a year earlier than planned, seeking a new vote of confidence after a string of defeats in local elections. He says his modest reforms to the welfare system are helping to get Germany out of the economic doldrums while maintaining social protection for working-class voters.
Ms. Merkel, who could become Germany's first woman chancellor and the first former East German to lead the country, says Mr. Schroeder has failed to make things better. She says she wants to forge ahead with profound reforms to the labor market and tax system that will make Germany the country that, once again, will drive growth in Europe.
But, with five million Germans out of work and an unemployment rate of more than 11 percent, many voters are uncertain about how far reforms should go and how the burden should be shared, even though they say their country needs to change.
Sabine Kaub, a science teacher in Berlin, says she does not know which way to vote.
"These elections are very important for our country, so now we have to decide which way we want to go," she said. "Do we want to trust in change? Or do we trust in the way that things are going now?"
The polls show that the issue for most voters is how to bring down unemployment. Bettina Kufner, a Berlin interior decorator, says she supports Chancellor Schroeder.
"Schroeder has got a difficult situation to handle. So let's give him one more chance. Why not?" she said.
But Michael Krebs, a business consultant in the German capital, says he is leaning toward Ms. Merkel and her Christian Democrats, although he realizes that Mr. Schroeder and his Green Party coalition partners have tried to fix things.
"The social democrats and the Green Party managed to work on very difficult issues in the last seven years, but they did not succeed so far," he said.
The opinion surveys show that at least 20 percent of Germany's 62 million registered voters were undecided. So it is unclear whether the Christian Democrats and their pro-business Free Democrat allies, who had a strong lead in the polls just a few weeks ago, will be able to muster a majority in parliament to push through a tough program of change.
If Ms. Merkel cannot form the alliance she wants, she could be forced to share power with the Social Democrats in a so-called grand coalition. Most analysts say that eventuality would paralyze decision making and stall the reforms that Mr. Schroeder began and Ms. Merkel wants to accelerate.