Race wide open as Germany votes in post-Merkel election
Opinion polls show the race for the chancellery headed for a photo finish, with Angela Merkel's CDU-CSU conservative alliance on around 23%.
Germany was voting Sunday in one of the most unpredictable elections in its recent history, with Angela Merkel's conservatives and the centre-left Social Democrats in a tight race for her crown as she prepares to leave the political stage.
The epochal election ushers in the end of 16 years in power for Ms. Merkel and thrusts Germany, a byword for stability, into a new period of political uncertainty.
Opinion polls show the race for the chancellery headed for a photo finish, with Ms. Merkel's CDU-CSU conservative alliance on around 23%, just behind the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) on 25 % — well within the margin of error.
"We will certainly see some surprises on Sunday," said Nico Siegel, head of the Infratest Dimap polling company.
Despite the SPD's consistent lead in the polls in recent weeks, a victory for the conservatives "can't be ruled out", he said. "The race for first place is wide open."
Polls will close at 6pm (1600 GMT), with exit polls to be published just after.
But with 40% of the electorate casting their ballot by post —including Ms. Merkel herself, trends of first estimates could well change when the postal votes are taken into account as the count begins.
By 2 pm, 36.5% of the electorate had turned up at voting stations to cast their ballot. That is 4.6 percentage points lower than in 2017, but it was likely due to the large number of people voting by post.
President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was among the early voters on Sunday, declaring that "to vote is to live democracy" as he cast his ballot in Berlin.
The two men jostling for the top job — Finance Minister and Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz( 63) of the SPD, and Armin Laschet, 60, of the CDU-CSU — voted in their respective constituencies of Potsdam and Aachen.
Mr. Laschet stressed that "every vote counts" in an election that would determine "the direction of Germany in the next years", while Mr. Scholz said he hoped summery weather was "a good sign" for his party.
At a polling station in Aachen, voter Ursula Becker (62) told AFP: "This year it's quite exciting who it will be, and it's always important who governs."
With both parties likely to fall well short of the majority needed to govern alone, there could be weeks or even months of fraught coalition negotiations.
After Germany's last election in September 2017, it was February before the CDU-CSU formed a coalition with the SPD.
Mr. Laschet, an affable but gaffe-prone centrist and longtime Merkel ally, was for some time the clear favourite.
But his popularity began to wane after a series of blunders over the summer, including being caught on camera laughing in the background during a tribute to the victims of devastating floods in Germany.
In the meantime, Mr. Scholz, who at the start of the year had looked down and out in the race, saw his ratings begin to rise as he avoided making such embarrassing mistakes.
On voting day itself, Mr. Laschet committed another blunder by folding his normally secret ballot with his two crosses for his CDU party visible rather than hidden.
The faux pas before live cameras sparked a Twitter storm, with some calling it an "own goal" for Mr. Laschet, although the chief of the electoral commission Georg Thiel said the ballot was still valid.
Green wave that wasn't
Along with social justice, climate change has been one of the top concerns among voters in the run-up to the election.
In Aachen, first-time voter Maite Hoppenz (18) told AFP that climate protection was "definitely a big topic for me because I think it will certainly have a big impact on my future".
The Green party enjoyed a surge in support earlier this year after naming 40-year-old Annalena Baerbock as its chancellor candidate, at one point even briefly taking the lead as the most popular party.
But after a series of missteps by Ms. Baerbock, including a plagiarism scandal, the Greens were polling well behind the two leading parties on around 17%.
While the chancellery may be out of reach for the party, it will likely have a role in Germany's next government.
All bets are off on the composition of the next coalition, as the SPD and the conservatives could each try to cobble together a ruling majority if there is little to divide their score.
On the eve of the polls, Mr. Scholz voiced his preference for a partnership with the Greens, calling on voters to give him the score needed to go with a two-way coalition.
Mr. Laschet has signalled he could still try to form a coalition even if the CDU-CSU do not come first, most likely calling on the Greens and the liberal FDP for support.
But coming in second would be a devastating blow for the party, which has dominated German politics since World War II and has never won less than 30% of the vote in federal elections.