As they head to the polls Sunday, German voters are a conflicted bunch: frustrated by years of rising unemployment and a weak economy, but just as scared of what it will take to fix things.
In May, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called for new elections to be held a year early, after his Social Democrats were pummeled in a series of regional contests. While voters expressed their unhappiness with a record 11.6 percent jobless rate, they were perhaps even angrier about Schroeder's efforts to revive the once-mighty German economy by trimming pensions, welfare payments and other expensive benefits that have stifled growth.
The anti-Schroeder sentiment has given a boost to his chief rival, Angela Merkel, whose Christian Democrats are favored to win the most votes in Sunday's elections. But opinion surveys show that her appeal has dropped in recent weeks as many Germans have grown increasingly fearful that her party will further weaken Germany's social safety net and make deeper spending cuts than Schroeder.
The result could be that neither Merkel nor Schroeder will be able to cobble together a majority government after the vote, leaving the country politically rudderless at a time, analysts, voters and lawmakers say, when it craves strong leadership.
"You can say Germany is at a tipping point," said Jackson Janes, executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University. "Germany is facing some choices. In the worst case, they can try to avoid it again and put things off, rather than taking their medicine. You can postpone, you can procrastinate, but eventually you have to do it. That's what is staring Germany in the face."
The latest polls gave Merkel and her party's coalition partner, the Free Democrats, a very slight majority but also showed that one in five Germans was still undecided, an unusually high number in a country where voter turnout usually reaches 80 percent.
If Merkel and her slate are unable to win a majority, they could be forced to enter into what Germans dub a "grand coalition" -- a unity government under which Merkel would likely become chancellor, but would have to share power with Schroeder's Social Democrats. Such an unwieldy arrangement could lead to political gridlock and possibly a new round of elections next year.
"Anything but a grand coalition!" the Berliner Zeitung newspaper lamented in an editorial, admonishing voters to make up their minds. "This election is no longer about Merkel against Schroeder. It is about whether Germany will vote for a government that has the power to act in a time of economic self-doubt and social tensions."
On Saturday, Merkel made last-minute campaign stops in Bonn and Frankfurt in her bid to become Germany's first female chancellor, as well as the first to come from the former East Germany. "My life changed completely after the fall of the Berlin Wall," she told a gathering of several thousand people in Bonn, the former capital of West Germany. "I know that change can bring about something good."
Schroeder, whose passion and charisma on the stump have made the race closer than many anticipated, closed out with visits to Frankfurt and Recklinghausen, in the industrial heartland of the Rhine Valley. "Don't worry about my future," he told a crowd in Frankfurt. "My future is to remain German chancellor."
Five political parties are expected to each receive at least 5 percent of the vote, the threshold required to earn national seats in the Parliament. The fragmentation means that the country is almost always ruled by a coalition government, usually led by the Social Democrats or the Christian Democrats, along with a smaller partner.
The two major parties have joined forces in a grand coalition once before, in the 1960s. Leaders of both parties have said they are not interested in teaming up this time around, though they haven't ruled out the possibility if neither was able to fashion a majority.
In a televised roundtable debate with other party leaders Monday, Schroeder played down the likelihood of a grand coalition. Merkel was more direct, saying: "There will be no grand coalition," but added, "the voters have, in fact, the last word."
Klaus von Beyme, a political scientist at the University of Heidelberg, said Germany's economic problems are so deeply rooted that it would take a unity government to solve them. Otherwise, he said, a cycle will emerge in which voters punish whichever party is in power, forestalling reforms.
"I think Schroeder committed a terrible blunder not to offer a grand coalition after the last election," von Beyme said. "Blame-sharing would have saved both of them."
With polls indicating a tight race, German newspapers were filled with speculation that if neither side is able to gain majority control, another round of elections could be around the corner.
Der Tagesspiegel, a Berlin daily, published a cartoon featuring Merkel's likeness on a campaign poster with the satirical slogan: "Vote for me now! Or I promise you the agony of another campaign with all the sucked-up arguments and hollow words that no one can hear or bear any longer!"