Partial results give Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives a big lead in national elections. The fate of their junior coalition partners looks less secure, and polls suggest Merkel will need to find at least one ally.
According to the public ARD broadcaster's figures, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats comfortably secured more votes than any other bloc, at a projected 41.7 percent. This would be a larger share even than most polls predicted, but it was not immediately clear how Merkel would set up a coalition government.
The current junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats, were put at 4.7 percent by ARD's poll - right on the cusp of the 5-percent support required to guarantee parliamentary representation.
"We will do everything we can in the next four years to make them successful ones for Germany," Merkel said in a speech at party headquarters, adding that it was too early to consider coalitions. "We will talk about this tomorrow when we know the final results - but we can surely celebrate tonight, as we have done a great job."
The preliminary results suggested that Merkel's conservatives were close to securing enough seats to rule without a coalition partner, with Germany's first post-war chancellor Konrad Adenauer (also CDU) the only precedent for single-party leadership at the national level. However, the major pollsters concurred that the Christian Democrats were likely to fall around six seats short of an outright majority and would need to seek at least one parliamentary ally.
Slight improvement for Social Democrats
The Social Democrats were set to score 25.5 percent according to the initial figures, comfortably in second but well adrift of Merkel's Christian Democrats.
"The situation is unclear, so the SPD would be well advised not to speculate about how the government might look," Social Democrat challenger Peer Steinbrück said of any future coalition negotiations. "That ball is in Mrs. Merkel's court."
Both the Greens and the Left party cleared the 5-percent hurdle; the Greens were placed at around 8.4 percent and the Left at 8.5 percent.
The preliminary results suggested that the euroskeptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party scored an unexpectedly high 4.7 percent in its first ever national election, albeit still falling just short of securing parliamentary representation.
Major gain for Merkel, at allies' expense
If accurate, the partial results point to a gain of almost 9 percent for Merkel's Christian Democrats - and to a loss of almost exactly 10 percent for the Free Democrats after their bumper election year in 2009. The Social Democrats made modest gains over their all-time low of 23 percent at the last general election, while the Greens and the Left both lost some support.
FDP lead candidate Rainer Brüderle told disappointed supporters on Sunday not to lose hope, with the chance that the Free Democrats could reach 5 percent once the final tally is in.
"It is clear that this is the worst result we have ever scored. It's a difficult hour for the FDP and as top candidate, I take responsiblity for this," Brüderle said. Irrespective of the final result, however, Brüderle said "this is not the end of the party - our work will get more difficult, but it will continue." The FDP has cleared the 5-percent hurdle in every German national election since the Second World War.
Polls closed in Germany at 6 p.m. local time (1600 UTC) on Sunday, with initial predictions compiled by national broadcasters and released soon after the end of voting.
More than 60 million people were eligible to vote, turnout was estimated at 72 percent. At the last national vote in 2009 turnout was just over 70 percent - a record low.