Campaigning in German elections usually winds down by Friday night, allowing candidates a day to rest and voters a chance to reflect before election day on Sunday.
But with opinion polls indicating a tight race between the main parties this time, both Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his conservative challenger Angela Merkel are zigzagging across the country, attending rallies and events and mobilizing supporters in the final hours.
On Saturday, both candidates headed to Germany's most populous state,North-Rhine Westphalia, to address crowds. Fittingly, it was the loss of that state's election in May that prompted Schröder to seek to bring the national poll forward by one year.
Accompanied by heavyweight party colleagues, the two are expected to end the race that has been dominated by the economy in the business capital, Frankfurt. Schröder addressed supporters while Merkel visited the ongoing Frankfurt auto show (photo), as they defended one last time their plans to jumpstart the economy and help the 4.7 million unemployed back into work.
Rousing the electorate
Merkel told an energized crowd in the former capital, Bonn, that the seven-year tenure of Schröder's center-left government had been a "failure" and that his government was keeping future budget cuts under wraps to salvage its re-election bid.
"We will not make false promises about how to get Germany moving again," the former physicist from eastern Germany told some 5,000 supporters, many waving orange "Angie" posters.
"I ask you to assure that I can become federal chancellor."
Schröder, 61, told some 10,000 supporters in the Ruhr Valley town of Recklinghausen that Merkel was incapable of assuring an economy balanced by prosperity and fairness.
"Who believes that those who slept through yesterday can
organize tomorrow's future?" Schröder, a charismatic campaigner said, referring to the
conservatives' 16 years in power under Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
A day earlier, Schröder, his voice cracking after more than 100 campaign rallies, said Merkel was "willing but not able" to lead the country and that only he could solve its deep-seated economic problems without putting the chief burden on the poor.
"We had to explain to voters that we can only maintain our social welfare system if we reform it," Schröder said in defense of his unpopular economic reform package known as Agenda 2010.
"That was a necessary process that I believe in and know to be right."
On Sunday, an estimated 69.1 million Germans -- among them 2.6 million first-time voters -- will head to the polls to elect a new parliament with 3,648 candidates vying for 598 seats. Polls will open at 8 a.m. CET and close at 6 p.m.
Latest opinion polls show support for the conservative alliance of Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU) at between 41 and 43 percent and about 8 percent for their preferred coalition partners, the free-market liberal FDP.
Schröder's Social Democrats (SPD) came in second at 32 to 34 percent, while their junior coalition partner, the Greens could take six to seven percent of the vote.
It looks likely that Germany will get its first female chancellor in the form of Angela Merkel and end the seven-year rule of Schröder's SPD-Green coalition. But, Merkel's future coalition partners look anything but clear-cut.
For one, the emergence of the Left Party, a new alliance comprising disgruntled Social Democrats and former communists who pollsters say could grab as much as up to eight percent of the vote, could skew the likely combinations leading to the possibility of a so-called "grand coalition" between the CDU and the SPD.
A further factor making it difficult to foresee the makeup of the future government is the large number of undecided voters -- up ten million according to one estimate -- who could end up swaying the election in too-close-to-call polls.
"More than 20 percent of registered voters said they were undecided just days before the election -- the highest rate ever before a federal poll," the head of the independent opinion research institute Infratest Dimap, Richard Hilmer, told Saturday's Die Welt newspaper.
The gloves are off
The campaigning has taken on an overtly combative tone in recent weeks ever since Schröder outperformed Merkel in a televised debate earlier this month, impressing with his suave performance and media-savvy.
Schröder's polished performance has since helped the SPD recover lost ground and come within striking distance of the CDU -- a fact that pollsters had ruled out less than a month ago.
In contrast, the CDU/CSU campaign has stumbled badly in past days with embarrasing wrangling over controversial finance minister Paul Kirchhof, whom Schröder has repeatedly attacked in his speeches.
High voter turnout expected
Pollsters are expecting a high electoral turnout on Sunday, more than during the last election in 2002, in which 79.1 percent of voters cast ballots.
"We're counting on a high turnout," Edgar Piel of Allensbach polling institute told Stuttgarter Nachrichten daily.
"The parties have polarized their campaigns in the last days before the election," Piel said.