Germans vote: bring in the country's first woman chancellor?

Germans headed to the polls on Sunday to cast their votes in a closely fought election that will decide the agenda for reform of Europe's largest economy and could bring in the country's first woman chancellor.

The conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) under Angela Merkel have consistently led the opinion polls and she is expected to become chancellor, displacing Gerhard Schroeder whose centre-left government has held power for seven years.

But with many of the country's 62 million voters undecided on the eve of the vote, it was unclear if she could muster enough support to form the centre-right coalition she says is needed to push through deep reforms of Germany's ailing economy.

If Merkel cannot form the ruling alliance she wants, she will probably be forced to share power with Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD) in a "grand coalition" markets fear could stall reforms Schroeder himself began and Merkel wants to accelerate.

For Germany and the rest of Europe, the stakes are high and for a new leader, the challenge of dealing with near-record jobless numbers and straining public finances will be daunting.

Surveys show that most Germans believe their country must adapt if it is to keep the prosperity built up since the end of World War Two but they are deeply uncertain about how far reform should go and how the burden should be shared.

"In Europe we were always among the first ranking countries. We don't have to always be the first but we must be among the first," she said.

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