Schroeder's Job on Line in German Vote

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is battling for his political life as national elections take place Sunday. His center-left Social Democrats have trailed challenger Angela Merkel's center-right alliance in polls, but the gap narrowed in recent days.

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SHEILAH KAST, host:

In Germany, polls closed about 30 minutes ago in voting to determine whether to give another mandate to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the Social Democrats, or whether, after seven years of center-left rule, to switch to the center-right alliance, led by Angela Merkel. NPR's Rachel Martin is on the line from Berlin.

Rachel, are there preliminary results yet?

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

Well, the first exit polls were released just minutes ago, and the results have been somewhat surprising. According to the polls, the CDU has about 37 percent of the vote. Now that's below what they need to get a majority and to form a coalition with their traditional allies, the Liberal Democrats. Exit polls for Gerhard Schroeder's SPD, meanwhile, are at around 34 percent, and this is higher than expected. And I'm told the mood at SPD headquarters is much lighter than it was an hour or so ago, while things at the CDU camp are much more subdued. And if the exit polls are any indication, if Angela Merkel, is named chancellor, she won't be governing with the coalition of her choice.

KAST: The economy has been a big issue in this campaign, especially the country's high unemployment. How did Schroeder combat criticisms about the economy, and what did Merkel offer as an alternative?

MARTIN: Gerhard Schroeder has taken a lot of blame for Germany's economic problems. There are roughly five million people unemployed here. The majority of those people are in the former Communist east. And the country's pension system is in jeopardy. Last year, Schroeder passed economic reforms, including deep cuts in welfare and unemployment benefits. Merkel spent a lot of the campaign attacking Schroeder for not going far enough with these reforms. She and her party want to ease labor protections to make it easier for companies to hire and fire workers. They also want to increase the value-added tax by 2 percent. So while many Germans didn't like the pain of Schroeder's reforms, the alternative Merkel is presenting could end up being even more painful.

KAST: And what's been the role of foreign policy in this election?

MARTIN: Well, it has played a role. There's still in Germany widespread opposition to the US war in Iraq, and Gerhard Schroeder knows this, and during the campaign he used virtually every opportunity to remind voters that he refused to support the war, saying often in his campaign speeches that Germany won't make its foreign policy decisions based on what Washington, DC, wants. While Angela Merkel has said she wants to strengthen ties with the United States, but she understands popular opinion about the war and she has said, like Schroeder, that she would not send German troops to Iraq.

KAST: If the exit polls play out, Merkel would be the country's first female chancellor. Tell us a bit about who she is and how she got here.

MARTIN: Angela Merkel is, by a lot of accounts, an outsider, in large part because of her background. She's a female Protestant from the former East, and her party, the CDU, is made up largely of Catholic men from the West. So she's seen as a little bit of an outsider, but nonetheless, it appears that she will, indeed, be Germany's next chancellor, if the polls are correct, but it's no longer clear-cut as to whether she'll be able to form a government with the CDU's traditional allies, and she could end up in a grand coalition with the Social Democrats.

KAST: NPR's Rachel Martin in Berlin. Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: You're welcome.

KAST: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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