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Updated: September 28, 2009 00:48 IST

Germans vote amid economic worries, terror threats

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A man casts his ballot for the German General Elections in Berlin on Sunday.
A man casts his ballot for the German General Elections in Berlin on Sunday.

Germans voted on Sunday on whether to give Chancellor Angela Merkel a second term at the helm of Europe’s largest economy, as the country faces rising unemployment and threats by Islamic extremists over Germany’s role in Afghanistan.

Ms. Merkel is hoping enough of the nation’s 62.2 million eligible voters to support her conservative Christian Democratic Party so she can dissolve her current coalition with the leftist Social Democrats and form a center-right coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats.

“Ms. Merkel did a good job and I want her to stay,” said Nicole Selka, 32, as she pushed her 18-month-old son in a stroller outside a Berlin polling station.

Security was tight on Sunday across Germany, following a rash of threats by Islamic extremists who threatened retaliation if Germany does not pull its 4,200 troops out of the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

One of the final surveys before voting began on Sunday indicated the conservatives could capture 33 percent of the vote, while the Free Democrats were supported by 14 per cent. The results of the Forsa poll would give the two parties a razor-thin majority in Parliament over any coalition that Social Democrats could engineer.

The Forsa survey gave only 25 per cent of the vote to the Social Democrats. It questioned 2,001 people and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

The Social Democrats, in power since 1998, are facing historic lows. Many analysts have argued they could benefit from a period in opposition.

Among the other parties currently in parliament, the Greens polled at 10 per cent, just behind the Left party at 12 per cent.

Despite possibly being the third-strongest party, both the Christian and Social Democrats have ruled out a coalition with the Left, made up of ex-Communists and former Social Democrats disenchanted by their party’s swing to the center.

Both Merkel and her main challenger, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democrats, ignored the Islamic threats in their final rallies on Saturday, focusing instead on the key domestic issues of jobs and economic recovery.

Germany is the world’s second biggest exporter after China and the biggest economy in the 27-nation European Union. Despite pressure from other EU nations to back a bigger stimulus plan, Ms. Merkel has kept the country’s unemployment rate hovering around 8 per cent during the financial crisis using government-supported short-term contracts.

Germany’s economy returned to modest growth in the second quarter and business confidence is rising, but its gross domestic product is still expected to shrink by 5 per cent or more this year, easily the worst performance since World War II.

Ms. Merkel’s campaign centered on modest middle-income tax cuts she said would boost spending and tax revenue. The Free Democrats seek a far broader overhaul of the income tax system, under which bottom and top rates both would sink significantly.

Steinmeier has called tax cuts unrealistic while the government has increased debt to deal with the economic crisis. His party wants to increase the top income tax rate and cut the lowest rate.

On Sunday, both party leaders voted at their local polling stations in Berlin, accompanied by their spouses.

“I am hoping for a strong voter turnout and a strengthening of democracy,” Steinmeier told reporters.

Two threatening videos surfaced on Friday, one by al—Qaida and another by the Taliban. The Taliban video showed top German landmarks like the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and Munich’s world-renowned Oktoberfest beer festival.

In response, authorities banned all flights over Oktoberfest until it ends on Oct. 4. The annual 16-day beer festival draws some 6 million visitors from around the globe.

Voter Koray Yilmaz dismissed the threats.

“I don’t take their threats seriously,” the 35-year-old translator said. He voted for the Social Democrats because he felt Merkel’s Christian Democrats were “too conservative when it comes to gender roles and family politics.”

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