By Rainer Buergin, Patrick Donahue and Tony Czuczka
Chancellor Angela Merkel wound up her campaign for a historic third term with an appeal to voters to back her defense of the euro as Social Democrat Peer Steinbrueck pledged to give Germany renewed direction.
The candidates delivered their final arguments on the eve of today’s federal election that will decide who takes the helm of Europe’s biggest economy and assumes the pre-eminent role in European policy making. Polls put Merkel’s Christian Democratic bloc ahead yet with no clear majority for a continued alliance with the Free Democrats. The anti-euro AfD party may also win seats, further complicating post- election coalition-building.
“Yes, it will be close,” Merkel said Saturday at the final rally of her campaign in Stralsund, the port city in her Baltic Sea constituency. “I said right from the start that every vote counts.”
Steinbrueck, speaking to supporters in Frankfurt, said that Merkel and her government had repeatedly dodged issues of substance and in a matter of hours “you can throw them out.”
Voting goes from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., when German television networks ARD and ZDF release exit polls. Results based on partially counted ballots will be broadcast from about 6:15 p.m.
Germans are going to the polls to cast their verdict on the past four years of Merkel’s term that were dominated by Europe’s collective defense of the euro during the sovereign debt crisis in the 17-nation currency area that spread from Greece.
Merkel, 59, has delivered a campaign message that her policy of aid in return for reforms is the best recipe for Europe, citing the drop in German unemployment to a two-decade low and a budget that’s next-to-balanced.
Steinbrueck, 66, her first-term finance minister, says she’s benefiting from her SPD predecessor’s policies and her austerity-first approach to Europe must be recalibrated to focus on spurring growth.
Steinbrueck, speaking to a crowd of about 7,000 in the financial capital, said that Germany under Social Democratic leadership would return to being a “good neighbor” in Europe, and cited the post-World War II era when Germany’s one-time victims “didn’t have to fear us anymore, and they experienced a trustworthy European partner.”