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The new iron lady

'Angie must save the world," screeched the band.

Left: A campaign poster of Guido Westerwelle from the liberal Free Democratic Party in Bad Honnef near Bonn; and a worker checks locked ballot boxes filled with uncast papers in HamburgPhotograph: EPA/Wolfram Steinberg
Left: A campaign poster of Guido Westerwelle from the liberal Free Democratic Party in Bad Honnef near Bonn; and a worker checks locked ballot boxes filled with uncast papers in HamburgPhotograph: EPA/Wolfram Steinberg

It looked as if it got lost on the way to a Eurovision heat rather than warming up the audience for the arrival of the most powerful woman in the world at one of her final rallies before today's election.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's speech in an old fish-auction hall in Hamburg on Wednesday night was swarming with secret servicemen as an audience of 2000 cheered and held up "Angie" placards.

Crowds gathered outside to see the woman they call Mutti - mummy - arrive in the city of her birth.

"You decide on the next four years for Germany," she told the packed hall, as she emphasised her policy successes. "Unemployment is at an all-time low. It is three million but that's much too much. We are aiming for less than 1.5 million."

Merkel's record in eight years of power speaks for itself, with Germany also having the lowest youth unemployment in Europe, set to end the reliance on nuclear power by 2022, and navigating the eurozone through perilous waters.

But her rivals accuse her of cherry-picking their policies. "The SPD [Social Democratic Party] and the Green party have been robbed by Angela Merkel," Ulrike Winkelman, domestic affairs editor of the left-leaning Berlin daily, Tageszeitung, told the Sunday Herald.

"That makes it hard for other parties to make their distinct mark. Merkel has robbed them of their issues."

The Chancellor's U-turn on nuclear power is just one example of alleged cherry-picking. Until the Fukushima disaster, Germany planned to extend the life of its nuclear power stations. After the disaster in Japan, ending nuclear power became top of the political agenda.

"Merkel's very good at doing symbolic policy," says Jens Althoff, spokesman for the Green Party. "In the case of Energiewende (energy change), they tried to criminalise protesters against nuclear waste and then came Fukushima and that had all the effect.

"We are one of the last countries in the EU without a minimum wage. Angela Merkel gives the impression that she will do it."

Winkelman agrees: "Merkel proclaims to do things and then she does not. This has been the case on issues such as minimum wage and pension reforms."

But the main election issues that have grabbed the headlines are not the campaigns but the controversy around them - a so-called "stinkefinger" and the emergence of a 30-year-old political pamphlet calling for legalisation of paedophilia.

Gaffe-prone SPD chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrueck caused a storm when he was pictured by one of the country's biggest news magazines, the Suddeutsche Zeitung, holding up the middle finger - or stinkefinger as it trended on Twitter in Germany. It was reportedly lifted when asked about his less-than-flattering nicknames.

The Greens must try to keep the public focus on their policy as the party's co-leader, Juergen Tritten, was recently accused of signing off a pamphlet in 1981 calling for abolition of laws against paedophilia.

Controversy aside, opinion polls yesterday put Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat Union (CDU) party ahead on 38.8%, with the SPD on 26%, the Greens on 9.8%, The Left party on 9.1%, current coalition partners the FDP (Free Democratic Party) on 6.3%, new party Alternative for Germany (AfD) 3.7% and the Pirate Party on 2.5%.

A land which rules by coalition, Germany's voting system is ingrained in its constitution, to prevent a repeat of the Nazi rise to power.With 598 seats in the Bundestag, Germany's lower house, its 62 million eligible citizens vote first for a candidate in a first-past-the-post system, then for a party in a proportional representation system.

Support for the FDP, the minority party in Merkel's coalition government, collapsed in the Bavarian election last week, which augurs badly for it in today's vote. The party has urged people, and in particular CDU voters who want to go back into coalition with the FDP, to give their second vote to the FDP, but Merkel called on CDU voters never to do this.

Merkel's biggest rival for the chancellorship, Steinbrueck, held his final big rally in Berlin's Alexanderplatz on Thursday night. After two weeks dealing with fallout from "­stinkefinger", his rally filled the main square.

"In three days we could have a different government in power - it's in your hands," he told the crowd. "We haven't done so many things wrong that we must change our name. We've stood for the same things for 150 years - freedom, justice and solidarity."

Often seen as a fringe party, The Left - Die Linke - were formed from smaller parties in 2007 to represent the socialist vote.

Led by Gregor Gysi, they are seen as too extreme for many and coalition has already been ruled out with the Greens and SPD.

It would almost be easier to find an actual pirate wandering the streets of Berlin than to find the HQ of alternative movement the Pirate Party. In a high-rise housing estate deep in the east of the capital lies the heart of the party which targets the youth vote.

The Pirates tell me they are aiming for 6% to 7% of the vote. This is disputed by polls and as their press conference has just one German journalist and a dog wandering around the proceedings, it does appear to be unrealistic.

Althoff, the Greens' chief spokesman, says his party is "the only party which gives exact plans on how they want to finance projects" but party policy has been largely overshadowed by the paedophilia leaflet scandal.

"We are fighting for the coalition. The best possibility for us is with the SDP," says Althoff.

Further to the right is AfD, which wants to radically change the euro. Party members maintain the single currency, instead of ­bringing nations closer, is tearing the ­eurozone apart. Formed just five months ago, it has around 15,000 members and is expected to gain 5% to 7% of the votes.

One of its most prominent candidates, whose face can be seen on placards across most of Berlin, is Beatrix von Storch. Over lunch this week, clutching two iPhones, answered in typically brusque German fashion between bites, she said: "It is clear that the euro crisis is getting worse. We are not giving Greece loans. We are giving Greece money and telling them what to do with that money. This is not a good way. We want to help the Greek people. We are paying their debts and interfering in their politics.

"We want the EU to remain together but better to remain together as friends rather than creditors. We see this as a danger."

The AfD's solution to this, von Storch explains, is a two-tier Euro. - a northern one and a southern one. She maintains this would help weaker countries to prosper but the idea stalls when asked what would happen if, say France were to falter.

"France could join the southern euro," says von Storch bluntly.

And on the question of possibly going into a coalition with the CDU, should the vote today make that possible? "I see no possibility of a coalition," von Storch says.

As the final push was made for votes yesterday it looked like Angela Merkel would be forming a coalition government but the question on everybody's lips is, with who?

If current coalition partners the FDP perform as badly as they did in last week's Bavarian election, she will be looking for a new partner.

She could form another so-called grand coalition with the SPD, and Berlin daily, Tagesspiegel, reported on Friday that the SPD and the Left party were both open to that idea.

Whatever the coalition outcome, most remain adamant that Merkel will be at the helm.

You can't walk down a street in Berlin without seeing political placards with messages but Merkel's show just a picture of Mutti's face and the CDU logo.

The pastor's daughter who grew up in East Germany and could not even vote for the first 35 years of her life has taken on something of a messianic status. The land's biggest weekly news magazine, Der Spiegel ,even pictured her on the cover posing as a queen of Germany.

Yet the real Angela Merkel remains an enigma to most.

"Everyone looks to Germany and Merkel specifically," says Berlin-based Alan Crawford, former Sunday Herald journalist and co-author of Angela Merkel: A Chancellorship Forged In Crisis.

"She is an enigma - she's not like other politicians, she doesn't speak in soundbites. People are yearning for German leadership so she has assumed responsibility. She has become an essential player."

Who she's playing with should become apparent from exit polls this afternoon around 4pm.

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