London The leadership of Germany, Europe's most populous and financially powerful country, goes up for grabs today in a showdown over conservative and liberal plans to fix the nation's troubled economy.
The outcome could significantly alter Germany's relationship with the United States, its leadership role in Europe and the country's efforts to shake off a double-digit unemployment rate, German political observers said. Or it could lead to no change at all, regardless of who wins.
"The strangest election campaign ever is coming to an end," said an editorial in the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. As for the nation's political future, it added, "No one knows what will happen."
Germans "want change, but they're afraid of change," said Constanze Stelzenmueller, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund.
Pundits say no clear winner is evident in today's election, meaning that a coalition government is likely to emerge, with months of paralysis and political haggling to follow over ministerial positions.
That projection comes in spite of the formidable challenge posed by a conservative parliament member, Angela Merkel, to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's center-left governing alliance. Merkel has favored strengthening German cooperation with the United States, whereas relations between Washington and Schroeder have been frosty for much of his time in office.
At one point during the summer, Merkel, 51, appeared to be a shoo-in to become Germany's first woman chancellor. Her conservative Christian Democratic alliance carried a 20 percentage point lead in opinion polls over Schroeder's Social Democrats and appeared strong enough to win the 50 percent of votes required to govern without a coalition.
In recent weeks, however, Merkel's lead has slipped, and political analysts say a power-sharing arrangement is a strong possibility.