BERLIN • German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her beleaguered rival, Mr Martin Schulz, embarked on a final push for votes yesterday ahead of a weekend election, both seeking to beat back a challenge from the emboldened hard-right.
The 63-year-old Dr Merkel, who polls say will cruise by a double-digit margin to a fourth term tomorrow, will rally supporters in Munich.
Mr Schulz, 61, a former European Parliament president and leader of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), will take to the stage in a central Berlin square in a last-ditch attempt to turn the race in his favour.
Despite Dr Merkel's commanding lead, the latest polls point to storm clouds on the horizon - the anti-immigration, anti-Muslim party Alternative for Germany (AfD) looks set to easily clear the 5 per cent hurdle to representation in Parliament in a historic post-war first.
The AfD is polling at between 11 and 14 per cent, deeply unsettling the mainstream parties that have governed Germany since the war, as a strong showing could eat away at Dr Merkel's lead.
With her CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU on between 33 and 36 per cent, they risk hurtling towards their worst score since 1998.
Mr Schulz's SPD is set to fare even worse, at between 19 and 22 per cent. He has found it hard to gain traction with his message of promoting social justice and narrowing the wealth gap. With the economy humming, business confidence robust and unemployment at post-reunification lows, analysts say there is simply little appetite for change at the top.
But the right-wing populists have seized on those disillusioned by Dr Merkel's 12-year tenure, and by her 2015 decision to let more than one million mainly Muslim asylum-seekers into the country.
Even the mainstream media points to a degree of Merkel fatigue, arguing that the soporific campaign and a sense of complacency could ultimately drive many German voters into the arms of extremists.
"Although the AfD is highly unlikely to fare as well as the extreme right in France or the Netherlands, any relative success for the AfD will reflect badly to international onlookers, given German history," said Mr Gerd Appenzeller of Berlin's daily Tagesspiegel.
Meanwhile, websites of the campaigns and major news media outlets are operating like normal in Germany, despite expectations of Russian cyber-interference.
"We don't see any verified attacks," said Mr Sandro Gaycken, the director of the Digital Society Institute in Berlin, which has been monitoring for Russian meddling.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES