Leading article: An election that will define the future of Germany and Europe

The signs are that Ms Merkel would handle the weight of office well. Her effect on Europe would be profound
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The Independent Online

It is no exaggeration to say that this is a make or break moment for Germany. The country is stagnating politically, after seven years of SPD/Green coalition rule. Economically, it is hovering on the edge of recession. Some five million Germans are unemployed. Few Germans are in any doubt that their country needs radical change.

Radical change is certainly what Angela Merkel and her CDU/CSU alliance is offering. Ms Merkel promises lower taxes (although she has rowed away from her initial suggestions of a flat tax). She would curtail the grip of employers' associations and trade unions on setting industry-wide wages. Non-labour wage costs would be cut. This plan has won the endorsement of big business in Germany.

On the face of it, Mr Schröder simply offers more of the same. In this campaign he has argued that his political experiences have taught him that it is only possible to push reform at a pace that is acceptable to the German people. Yet it would be wrong to ignore the reforms he has enacted over the past two years. After a titanic battle in parliament, he pushed through his Agenda 2010, cutting back elements of the welfare system. And some results are beginning to feed through. Unemployment is coming down. It ought to be remembered too that Germany is the world's leading exporter. Productivity is still very high. Germany should not be spoken of as an economic basket case. But the question it must answer is whether Mr Schröder is capable of turning things around fast enough.

At this stage, the answer is anything but clear. A few weeks ago it looked as if Ms Merkel was certain of a comfortable victory. Her CDU/CSU alliance was ahead in the polls and the SPD was rapidly losing support. But all that has changed now, thanks largely to a formidable campaign by Mr Schröder. While Ms Merkel has undoubtedly made the running in policy terms, Mr Schröder has won the personality battle hands down. Now the most likely result of Sunday's poll is a coalition government.

Yet it is worth considering what sort of Chancellor Ms Merkel would be, as there is still a distinct possibility she will find herself in charge of Germany's future after Sunday. While she is not as skilful a politician as Mr Schröder, the signs are that she would handle the weight of office well. It might also be healthy for Germany - perhaps the most conservative of the "old European" nations with respect to women in public life - to have a female Chancellor. Her effect on European politics would be profound. Ms Merkel's election could prompt economic reform in France. As someone born in the former East Germany, she might adopt a firmer line on Russia. But there would much less admirable aspects to a Merkel chancellorship too. Her hostile views on Turkey's membership of the European Union are well known.

Germany's future hangs in the balance this weekend. Its people have before them a decision that will effect the future of Europe's largest economy and that of the continent itself. It is to be hoped they choose wisely.