The centre-left Social Democrats appear to have a very narrow edge over Angela Merkel's bloc in Germany’s parliamentary election, exit polls showed.
An exit poll for ARD public television put voters' support at 25% each for the Social Democrats — for whom outgoing Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz is running for chancellor — and Merkel’s center-right bloc under would-be successor Armin Laschet.
Another exit poll for ZDF public television put the Social Democrats ahead by 26% to 24%. Both put the environmentalist Greens in third place with about 15% support.
Some 60.4 million people were called upon to cast their ballot on Sunday across Germany to elect their member of parliament which then determines who is to succeed Merkel after 16 years at the helm.
Coalitions have been a fixture of German federal politics for decades and this election did not buck the trend. Negotiations could take weeks or months and will thus require Merkel to remain at the helm in a caretaker capacity until a power-sharing deal is struck.
The CDU-CSU and SPD have been in multiple power-sharing agreements together, including in the last government. This time around, they're both hoping they can make do without the other.
The Green Party, which was widely expected to come in third place, have signalled they're willing to enter into government with the SPD. This could see them return to power for the first time since the 1950s.
However, this is quite a reversal of fortunes for the party which was leading in the polls until April. The party's chances were hurt after its candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, was hit by a series of setbacks including accusations of plagiarism and undeclared bonuses.
An SPD-Green alliance would however not be enough to secure a majority in the Bundestag. The radical left Die Linke could then be brought in, although it would be expected to give up its criticism of NATO.
The Free Democrats are likely to have the envious role of kingmaker.
For Scholz, an alliance with the pro-business FDP is more palatable than with Die Linke, while Armin Laschet — the candidate for Merkel's Union bloc — is also pinning his hope on an alliance with the FDP and the Greens.
Laschet, who cast his vote in Aachen, in the central-western North-Rhine Westphalia lander he leads, told reporters: "We can all feel that this is a very important election, an election which will decide which direction Germany is going to take in the coming years."
"That is why it depends on every single vote and I hope that everybody uses their right to vote so that the Democrats (CDU) will be able to form a new government," he added.
He caused slight controversy, however, as he inadvertently revealed who he had voted for by failing to fold the ballot paper in the correct way. The Electoral Commission ruled that his vote his valid.
The Greens candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, cast her vote in Potsdam and told reporters her party is "hoping for a few more votes" than forecasts predicted, "so that we can achieve a real new departure in this country."
The far-right AfD, which entered the Bundestag for the first time four years ago, is expected to confirm its parliamentary foothold with around 10% but remains excluded from any possible coalition.