Mighty Merkel on track for third term
GERMAN Chancellor Angela Merkel, an unflappable pastor's daughter, is closing in on a third term in Sunday's general election, cementing her title as the world's most powerful woman.
So strong is Dr Merkel's position that she has often seemed to transcend politics during what may be the last of her juggernaut campaigns, simply ignoring her opponent along the way.
This month, a giant billboard went up at Berlin's main train station featuring only a picture of the 59-year-old's hands folded in her trademark diamond-shape gesture.
Quite simply, the mighty Merkel is the message.
After eight years at the helm of the top European economy, and three as the go-to leader in the euro- zone crisis, Dr Merkel looks set to sail to another term at the helm for steering the country unscathed through the turmoil.
But abroad, angry protesters have marched through the streets of Athens, Lisbon and Madrid, blaming her for national budget cuts they said are choking off desperately needed economic growth, some even brandishing caricatures of Dr Merkel in Nazi garb.
"I am determined to see Europe emerge stronger from the crisis," she intones regularly. "Germany can be strong only with a strong Europe."
Pollsters said all roads appear to lead to Dr Merkel - often called the world's most powerful woman - winning re-election.
Advocates of stronger stimulus measures had placed their hopes in the Social Democrats (SPD). But their gaffe-prone candidate, Mr Peer Steinbrueck, 66, has stumbled repeatedly and the SPD is trailing the conservatives by a 13-point margin in opinion polls.
A front-page photo showing him making a rude hand gesture, derisive comments about cheap wine, complaints about the chancellor's "low" salary and whingeing about Dr Merkel's popularity due to a "women's bonus" were only a few of Mr Steinbrueck's missteps on the campaign trail.
The vote, in which nearly 62 million Germans are called to the ballot box, will instead turn on whether her current centre-right coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) can hold on to power.
Poll numbers suggested it will be a close call. If they fail to muster a ruling majority, Dr Merkel would be forced into the arms of her traditional rival, the SPD, in a "grand coalition" - the same loveless union of her first four-year term.
While Germans look forward to another Merkel term, Europeans in the crisis-ravaged south blame her austerity-driven strategy for aggravating joblessness and economic stagnation.
Massive bailout packages for stricken countries, financed in large part by Germany, have given rise to an anti-euro party, AfD, which is now flirting with the 5 per cent threshold for seats in Parliament.