Germans vote in close election to decide Merkel successor
Germans went to the polls on Sunday in a national election too close to call, with the center-left Social Democrats mounting a strong challenge to retiring Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives.
Merkel has been in power since 2005 but will step down after the election, making the vote an era-changing event to set the future course of Europe's largest economy.
A fractured electorate means that after the election, leading parties will sound each other out before embarking on more formal coalition negotiations that could take months, leaving Merkel, 67, in charge in a caretaker role.
"We all sense that this is a very important federal election," Armin Laschet, Christian Democratic Union party's candidate for chancellor, told journalists in Aachen.
"It is a federal election that will decide the direction of Germany in coming years and therefore every vote counts."
Running against Laschet is Olaf Scholz of the SPD, the finance minister in Merkel's right-left coalition who won all three televised debates between the leading candidates.
Scholz, 63, has seen his party's lead over the conservatives squeezed to 1-3 points in final opinion polls, leaving Laschet with a chance of clinching a narrow victory.
"I hope that as many citizens as possible will go and vote and make a very strong result for the SPD possible and give me the mandate to become the next chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany," Scholz said in Potsdam near Berlin.
The election is expected to yield a splintered parliament, which will force the winner to form a three-way coalition to secure a majority.
The most likely coalition scenarios see either the SPD or the conservative CDU/CSU bloc, whoever comes first, forming an alliance with the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats.
Scholz said that his preferred outcome was for the SPD and Greens to secure a majority to rule alone without a third partner.