'Angie' faces toughest test in effort to become Germany's first female leader

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The Independent Online

Angela Merkel faces Gerhard Schröder tonight in a 90-minute showdown that could decide the election. With just two weeks left before Germany goes to the polls, as much as half of the electorate is said to be still undecided which way they will vote. This evening's "TV duel" is expected to be watched by some 20 million Germans.

Mrs Merkel is leading the race, but a poor performance could spoil her chances. Mr Schröder, the incumbent Chancellor, is a far more popular personality than his rival - but his Social Democrats (SPD) have been trailing in the opinion polls since he called the election in May. Many believe that only a powerfully charismatic performance from their man tonight can lure enough floating voters to win the election.

"Schröder's personal approval rating is a big plus point for us," the SPD chairman, Franz Müntefering, said last week. "We must ensure [voters understand] the SPD and Gerhard Schröder belong together."

In contrast to her suave opponent, Mrs Merkel used to be seen as a dumpy, straight-talking ex-scientist with dodgy hair and a reluctance to smile. That was until the Christian Democrats gave "Angie", as they now call the 51-year-old, a serious makeover. Her pudding-bowl hairdo is gone, replaced by a feathered, highlighted creation from star German crimper Udo Walz, who then promptly became a card-carrying CDU party member.

Angie's make-up is professionally applied; her once disastrous wardrobe has gone under the ruthless eye of a stylist. For tonight's TV duel, Mrs Merkel is said to have enlisted the help of a former newsreader to help improve her on-camera presence.

Whether any of this is really necessary is another matter. "I mean, can she really do any better?" asked Silvio Klein. The 22-year-old law student had come to Potsdam, east of Berlin, to watch Angie in action. As he listened to Mrs Merkel being introduced to the small crowd as "our hope and solution", he said he had not decided which way to vote.

The truth is that Mrs Merkel will probably win on 18 September. The latest polls put the CDU at 43 per cent, compared with the SPD's 32 per cent. The most likely outcome is that the CDU will form a coalition with the small liberal FDP party. The best the SPD can hope for is that their opponents fall just short of the 50 per cent mandate they need to form a government and are forced to include them in a "grand coalition".

Analysts point out that Germans are not rallying to Mrs Merkel with great hope or expectation. With around five million still unemployed and no sign of real economic growth on the horizon, they are simply desperate to find someone, anyone, to make things better quickly.

"I want the good times back again," said Günter Müller, 63, also at the rally and vigorously waving a CDU-approved "Wechsel Wählen" (Vote Change) flash card in the air.

Yet as Stern magazine noted: "What is especially absurd about this election campaign is that the majority of the population still agrees with the core of the SPD manifesto." They are also against many of the CDU proposals: raising VAT, relaxing the rules that make it nearly impossible to sack employees and raising health insurance costs regardless of income level. They even distrust the CDU's promise to lower taxes. "Despite all of this," Stern continued, "they still won't vote SPD. The party has simply lost the voters' trust."

As the political commentator Hans-Ulrich Jörges summed up the race last week, Mrs Merkel is certain to win "unless the sky falls in before 18 September".