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In Depth

German election: Merkel's challenger Martin Schulz down but not out

The SPD may be down in the polls, but Martin Schulz hasn't given up the race. Angela Merkel's rivals have spent the weekend crisscrossing the country to pick up last-minute votes. DW's Rebecca Staudenmaier reports.

Martin Schulz isn't giving up without a fight. At the Social Democrat (SPD) candidate's last campaign event in the western city of Aachen on Saturday, Schulz couldn't help but throw a few final jabs at the woman he hopes to unseat after Germany votes on Sunday — Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"She wants to keep the past, I want to shape the future," Schulz yelled to a crowd of hundreds of people crammed into Aachen's Katschhof courtyard.

Schulz hoped first and foremost to stir up support for his party, which could be in for historic losses in the Bundestag should the latest polls placing it at around 21 percent prove correct. But he also tried to steer voters away from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) which may snag third place in Sunday's election.

Calling the AfD the "grave-diggers of democracy," Schulz appealed to the cheering crowd. "Go vote tomorrow to keep the extreme-right in Germany as small as possible."

From the way he processed to the stage, passing through a roped-off path lined with enthusiastic onlookers and a protester or two, to the way he joked with the audience, telling young voters to pick their friends up from the bar and go vote, Schulz appeared at home in Aachen.

Read more: Bergkamen, an SPD bastion where everybody knows your name

Located near the Dutch and Belgian borders in the populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Aachen is just south of the small town of Würselen where Schulz grew up and where he still lives. Before rising in the ranks of European politics to become the president of the European Parliament, Schulz served as Würselen's mayor for 11 years.

This is his turf.

But it doesn't mean that everyone was thrilled with the SPD candidate.

Watch video 02:03

Last push for votes in German election campaign

Convincing the unconvinced

"I don't really have anything to say about him. Nothing bad, but nothing positive," a 24-year-old student in Aachen told DW.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said she still wasn't sure who to vote for but was certain she didn't want another grand coalition between Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the SPD.

Read more: German election: A guide to possible coalitions for Berlin's new government

Polls estimated that 32 percent of the German electorate was still undecided, reluctant to tell pollsters who they will vote for, or flat-out not intending to vote this time around.

Concerns about a continuation of the grand coalition were shared by others, including Norbert and Ariane Ebbing from the northern German area of Brocken. They said nothing could be worse for them than a repeat of the past four years.

"They're not looking out for the little people," said Mr. Ebbing, a 53-year-old business owner. Nodding, Mrs. Ebbing added that "pensions are only getting smaller." They both said Germany has lacked a "loud opposition" for years.

Harald Stroh, 67, similarly told DW that a stronger opposition would be good for Germany. 

Like others, 67-year-old Aachen resident Harald Stroh thought German politics desperately needs a louder opposition. He said he was "excited" to see what the AfD would do should they head the opposition in the Bundestag.

"It would be shameful - but funny," he said with a smile.

Believing till the end

Those dissatisfied with the SPD's performance during this campaign said issues like education, pensions and security were not raised often enough - by any of the major parties.

Schulz did address each of those topics during his final campaign rally on Saturday. Schulz believes that his positions have fallen on deaf ears since, according to him, his opponent Merkel takes his talking points and makes them her own.

"I can't do anything about it if she constantly parrots everything," Schulz shouted to the laughing crowd.

Read more: What you need to know about the German electorate

Still, not all were skeptical or dismissive of Schulz at his final rally.

SPD volunteer, 21-year-old Laura Kwietzinski said she liked that Schulz describes himself as a feminist and that he supports measures that would help parents more easily equal practices for men and women.

"It's important to me that he campaigns for women's rights and calls himself a feminist. Merkel avoided doing that," Kwietzinski said as she passed out red SPD flags.

Josefine Rückert, a 27-year-old student in Aachen and another volunteer for the SPD campaign said the latest poll results were "sobering," but that she still believed in her party's candidate.

"We're going to campaign until the last poll station closes."

Wrapping up the race for third place

While Merkel spent the day in her home state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where the AfD have encroached the CSU's support, and then made a final campaign stop in Berlin, the other top candidates also attempted to consolidate last-minute support.

Read more: Tradition is the status quo in CSU stronghold Bad Tölz

The Green party's top candidates Cem Özdemir and Katrin Göring-Eckardt finished off a final campaign sprint through each of Germany's 16 states, where they held speeches in market squares, and took part in a climate protection demonstration in Hamburg. Saturday's finish line was at the bar, with Göring-Eckardt mixing cocktails herself in Hanover.

Read more: Germany's Green party finds a haven in Heidelberg

Christian Lindner, the charismatic leader of the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), wound down his party's comeback campaign in North Rhine-Westphalia, just like Schulz.  He peppered his Friday night rally in the city of Bonn with jabs at Merkel and Schulz before making his final campaign appearance on Saturday in the state's capital Düsseldorf.

Read more: In the liberal FDP stronghold of Strande, life's a beach

Watch video 04:33

The Rhineland and its chancellor candidate

After being ousted from the Bundestag in 2013 when the party failed to clear the five percent hurdle to enter parliament, the FDP looks set to re-enter this time around, with the latest polls putting them just under 10 percent.

Left party top candidates Sahra Wagenknecht and Dietmar Bartsch pledged to remain the third largest party in the Bundestag during their final campaign event on Friday in Berlin. The latest polls put the party at 11 percent behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The AfD, whose co-candidates Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland finished campaigning with mid-week appearances at rallies and debate shows, pushed its status as the possible third place winner with support for the party hovering between 11 and 13 percent. 

Read more: Far-right AfD stronghold Pasewalk: Forgotten and frustrated

If poll projections hold, the AfD could unseat the Left party to become the third largest party in the Bundestag and possibly the main opposition force, depending on the outcome of coalition talks.

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