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Germany polls on knife edge

Berlin, Sept. 17 (Reuters): German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his rival Angela Merkel launched a final drive on election eve today to win over up to 10 million undecided voters ' estimated to be the highest total ever.

Merkel, whose Centre-Right alliance has led in opinion polls, is almost certain to replace Schroeder to become Germany’s first woman chancellor and the first to have grown up in the formerly communist east.

But whether she will gain enough support to form the coalition she says is needed to push through deep-seated reform of Germany’s sickly economy or whether she will have to share power with Schroeder’s Social Democrats appears completely open.

The last opinion polls yesterday gave her Christian Democrats (CDU) and their liberal Free Democrat (FDP) allies a narrow majority. Their earlier hefty lead has been cut sharply by a barnstorming campaign effort from Schroeder.

Both Merkel and Schroeder are speaking at campaign rallies today as the main parties have pledged to defy tradition and fight for every vote right up until the close of polling.

With recent surveys showing as many as 10 million voters, or almost a sixth of the total, apparently yet to make up their minds, anything may still happen by the time voting ends at 1600 GMT tomorrow, when first exit polls were due.

“At 20 per cent plus two days before the election, the number of undecided is higher than before any other general election,” Richard Hillmer, head of pollsters Infratest Dimap told the daily Die Welt today.

The levels were testament both to what is at stake and the deep uncertainty many Germans feel about the future course of their country.

Five million people are out of work, the pensions system is facing crisis, schools and universities are in urgent need of investment and reform and firms have long stopped just complaining about high costs.

Surveys suggest that most Germans accept the system needs to change but are uncertain about how far and how fast.

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