Germany is heading towards a highly uncertain future as federal elections see the country draw a line under the Angela Merkel era.
The likeliest outcome is several months of turbulent negotiations in Europe's leading economy as parties try to form a coalition government, with several combinations possible and no single party standing out.
Polls suggest that none of the main candidates to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor seem particularly convincing to the country's voting base of 62 million, who will be casting their ballots on September 26.
However, under the German system the top job is not elected directly by the people, but via the federal parliament, the Bundestag.
Now that Germany's imperturbable leader is bowing out after 16 years in office, Euronews takes a look at the leading candidates.
A gaffe too far for the 'nice Mr Laschet'?
Armin Laschet portrays himself as the natural successor to Angela Merkel. Often praised for his ability to unite people, the president of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) shares the outgoing chancellor's centrist, pro-European instincts.
Leader of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, the 60-year-old has put forward a vague but reassuring manifesto and has stayed true to Merkel's belief in abstaining from risk-taking during the campaign.
And not without good reason: the CDU candidate has an unfortunate reputation for being gaff-prone. Often written off, he has however also won recognition for a canny ability to survive knocks.
Laschet was one of Merkel's rare supporters in the wake of her decision in 2015 to allow in hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Syria and Afghanistan, although relations have since cooled amid differences over the handling of the pandemic.
His integrationist policies as a regional minister 10 years earlier earned him the nickname "Armin the Turk" among CDU ranks. Later, his backing for immigration and sympathy for the Greens earned him the tag "the nice Mr Laschet".
The son of a miner-turned-teacher, Laschet grew up and still lives in Aachen, Germany's westernmost city close to the Belgian and Dutch borders. A devout Catholic, the former altar boy met his future wife in a youth church choir. After studying law, he worked as a journalist before going into politics.
Three months after winning the CDU presidency last January, he survived a ferocious power struggle to beat off the challenge from Markus Söder, the popular head of its Bavarian sister party the CSU, to become the centre-right candidate.
Briefly led in the polls by Green candidate Annalena Baerbock, Laschet has since overtaken his rival, although a recent survey brings cause for concern. According to INSA, only 12% of German voters would choose the conservative as chancellor.
The floods in western Germany in July, which left at least 190 people dead including some 50 in his home area, severely put to the test Laschet's ability to manage a crisis.
He drew a barrage of criticism on social media for a condescending reply to a journalist when challenged over measures to tackle climate change.
"Excuse me young woman. It's not because we're experiencing such a day that we should change policy," was his response.
A photo of Armin Laschet laughing in the background while German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier paid tribute to the victims was equally damaging. On a subsequent visit to the flooded areas, he was taken to task by afflicted residents.
In a TV interview in July, the election hopeful claimed not to be worried by the fact he has often been underestimated during his political career. "Many have in any case been mistaken," he said.
Can the 'Scholzomat' spring a surprise?
If the German chancellor was elected directly by the voters instead of the Bundestag, there seems little doubt that the number two figure in Angela Merkel's government would win.
An INSA poll in early August asked respondents who would be their preferred choice. The social democrat Olaf Scholz came top with 27%, more or less double the score for Laschet (14%) or the Greens' Annalena Baerbock (13%). It is telling, however, that more than a third said they did not want any of the trio.
Last month the Social Democratic Party (SPD) moved ahead of Angela Merkel's CDU in polling for the first time in 15 years.
Vice-chancellor and finance minister in Angela Merkel's coalition government, the moderate but uncharismatic 63-year-old dreams of springing a surprise and taking the reins of power, 16 years after his mentor Gerhard Schröder.
It would be a triumph for the once long-haired student who joined the SPD, one of Europe's oldest parties, at the age of 17.
His crown now distinctly barer, Scholz is often mocked for his austere appearance and monotone speeches that have seen him nicknamed the "Scholzomat" -- "emotionality is not his thing", a colleague reportedly said. But the former mayor of Hamburg could find himself propelled to the top job if the coalition cards are dealt in his favour.
The former labour minister has long backed causes such as social housing and raising the minimum wage -- again a key theme under his campaign slogan #ausrespekt ("out of respect").
Since he replaced the fiscally conservative Wolfgang Schaüble as finance minister in 2018, Scholz has distanced himself from the gruff, moralising tone of his predecessor, especially towards the perceived laxity of much of southern Europe.
At the same time, Scholz has been careful not to unravel Schaüble's rigorous discipline. As in other countries, similar positions adopted by politicians from traditionally left-wing parties have not always gone down well with the rank-and-file. In Germany, labour market liberalisation and budgetary austerity have shellshocked many on the left.
As finance minister, he faced allegations of being asleep at the helm during the Wirecard scandal, as the German financial service provider cooked the books.
Yet Scholz has also won plaudits for being ready to throw the kitchen sink at the pandemic-ravaged economy. Presenting his coronavirus aid package, he made headlines with talk of pulling out the "bazooka" to haul Germany out of the crisis with "oomph".
The result is that after years of budget surplus, the country now has billions of euros of debt. "All that is expensive, but to do nothing would have been even more costly," he said.
In 2019 Scholz was passed over for the SPD chairmanship, the party choosing instead a relatively unknown duo much further to the left. But despite years of internal party turmoil, his tenure in government could help him win vital backing among the public at large.
Die WELT has described him as a "lone fighter who has citizens behind him, but not his backward-looking party".
Baerbock seeks to bounce back
"There's a lot at stake with these elections! Our future is at stake, and the future doesn't happen on its own, it must be built!"
Annalena Baerbock's call to electoral arms earlier in August came on the day that UN climate experts published a particularly alarming report on the acceleration of global warming.
It provided more ammunition for the Greens' hopeful for the top job in Berlin as she proclaimed her party "are ready" to govern. The environment had already leapt back to centre stage in the public debate following July's devastating floods.
The chancellorship briefly seemed a real possibility in April, as the party raced to a shock lead in the polls in April, in the wake of Baerbock's anticipated nomination for the election to replace Angela Merkel.
The dynamic 40-year-old, who says she stands for a "fresh start" in Germany, seemed to embody renewal in a country keen for change after 16 years of Merkel's conservative stewardship. But Baerbock's credibility has since taken a hit with accusations -- unfair ones according to her backers -- of plagiarism and an overdressed CV.
The internet has often not been kind either, to say the least. One hoax story claimed that she once took nude photos; another said she wanted to ban dog ownership to protect the climate. But neither has the relative political newcomer been spared by political rivals. A leading member of the CDU-CSU group described Baerbock's asylum programme as a "bomb in the framework of our welfare state".
Her candidacy was even called into question as the Greens fell back behind the other main parties in public opinion, although one political analyst told Euronews the party's lead was only ever likely to be a blip.
Growing up near Hanover, Baerbock describes her upbringing as politicised. Her parents took her to anti-nuclear protests. A sporty teenager, at first she wanted to be a war reporter and only went into politics in her twenties via internships in Brussels.
European politics -- she describes herself as a "passionate European" -- turned out to be a springboard for a political career that in 2018 saw Baerbock elected co-leader of the Greens with Robert Habeck.
The party's core theme is clear: the next federal government must go further than the last and make climate protection the benchmark in all policy areas, in order to meet the demands of the Paris climate agreement.
Annelena Baerbock also has ideas for advancing the rights of children and asylum-seekers, and to relieve the tax burden for those on low pay.
Were she to win the election, Baerbock would be the first Green Chancellor, the first mother to hold the post, and the first German head of government to openly call herself a feminist. She highlights the fact that she is the mother of two small children, in the mould of New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern or Sanna Marin of Finland.
Her nomination to run for chancellor brought a rush of new party members. But the polls suggest winning the election will be an uphill struggle to say the least.
Who else is in the running?
The other candidates in the race to be German chancellor are:
- Christian Lindner of the centrist Free Democratic Party (FDP), which promotes the free market and backs social and economic reform.
- Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla of the populist, hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. It has fallen away since doing well in 2017 but remains popular in the former communist east.
- Janine Wissler and Dietmar Bartsch of the Left (LINKE) party, which promotes state control of the economy and withdrawal from NATO.