Conservatives losing ground in last minute polls

Polls are showing that the conservative CDU party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel may not end up with its preferred coalition partner, the liberal FDP, in national elections scheduled for Sunday.


REUTERS - German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her rivals made a last-ditch scrap for votes Friday ahead of an election to choose the coalition that must pull Europe's top economy out of its worst post-war slump.

Barring a huge election day surprise Sunday, the popular Merkel -- Forbes magazine's world's most powerful woman for the past four years -- was expected to win a second term at the helm of the world's number-two exporter.

But the country was spooked by a message from Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden with German subtitles demanding that Europeans leave Afghanistan, hours after the third German-language video in a week by an Al-Qaeda militant surfaced.

A new poll published late Friday showed the race could yet be a  cliffhanger, with Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) leaking support and her preferred coalition looking ever less certain to win power.

The survey, by the Forsa institute for Stern magazine and RTL television, put the CDU on 33 percent and its favoured partner, the Free Democrats (FDP), on 14 percent -- leaving its coalition hopes on a knife-edge.

Merkel's traditional rivals, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), are polling at 25 percent, the far-left Linke party 12 percent and the Greens 10 percent.

Moreover, 26 percent are still undecided, according to Forsa, which surveyed voters September 21-24, meaning there is still plenty to play for in the race's final straight.

SPD candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Merkel, currently at a Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh, would see the centre-right's advantage vanish on election night.

"The big lead they had has melted like ice in the sunshine," he told a rally of 10,000 people at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. "We will keep fighting for every vote until the last second on Sunday at 6:00 pm" when the polling stations close.

Meanwhile the conservatives launched a "72-hour final campaign".

"This election is going to be decided in the final metres," CDU general secretary Ronald Pofalla said.

"The number of undecided voters is high ... we are going to use these last important hours and mobilise all our strength."

With Germany facing its worst economic downturn since the war, a survey by business daily Handelsblatt showed that unemployment and the recession were voters' top concerns.

Economic policy is one of the few areas the two main parties have clearly defined differences, with the CDU calling for tax cuts across the board and the SPD wanting to raise the tax rate for high-income earners.

Moreover, the SPD wants to introduce a nationwide minimum wage of around 7.50 euros (11 dollars), which the CDU rejects.

Awaiting the election's winner are several headaches, including a record debt mountain, a likely rise in unemployment and stagnating consumption.

Exit poll results, expected at 1600 GMT Sunday, could well prompt hours of nail-biting as party leaders haggle over possible coalitions.

Another survey by the Emnid polling agency showed that Merkel remains popular among voters but that more Germans would prefer another four years of the loveless "grand coalition" between the CDU and the SPD.

According to the poll, 49 percent of voters would prefer a grand coalition, compared to 38 percent sharing Merkel's preference for a combination of CDU and FDP.

Nearly seven out of 10 voters rated Merkel's performance as good or very good, the survey indicated.

"The person who wins will be the person who manages to transform the number of undecideds into three or four percentage points," polling expert Ulrich Eith told the Financial Times Deutschland.

"The election is set to be an extremely close contest between the left-wing and right-wing blocs, and there is the potential for a number of twists," Grace Annan from IHS Global Insight said in a research note.

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