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Angela Merkel's conservatives have suffered their worst postwar result. The center-left Social Democrats now lead, preliminary results show. Both parties say they are ready to form the next coalition.
Last updated at 05:00 GMT/UTC
Looking for a wrap of what happened overnight and what's to come? Click here for our election night analysis.
Olaf Scholz's Social Democrats have won 25.7% of the vote, according to the preliminary results, ahead of the CDU/CSU alliance which dropped down to 24.1%.
The Greens maintained their position as the third largest party, winning 14.8% of the vote. The Free Democrats (FDP) claimed 11.5% the AfD 10.3%, the Left Party fell to 4.9% but will retain its seats in the Bundestag despite dropping below the 5% hurdle, thanks to winning three districts directly.
The Greens and the FDP are the kingmakers for likely coalitions, either the CDU/CSU or the SPD could team up with them and form a government, if they can convince both parties to cooperate.
The Christian Democrats' Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), saw its worst election performance since 1949, winning 31.7% in Bavaria, which is more than seven percentage points down from its 2017 performance.
As recently as 2013, the CSU had taken above 47% of the vote and had enough seats to govern in Bavaria without a coalition.
But while the CDU's national woes have certainly extended to Bavaria, the notoriously conservative and Catholic state remains the happiest hunting ground by far for the conservative bloc. The CSU's record low was still well clear of the nationwide tally of around 24%.
There's one election rule in German politics that you might have heard of: the so-called 5% hurdle. For parties to claim a number of seats in Parliament representing their share of the national popular vote, they must secure 5% support.
The idea is to only permit serious political forces into the Bundestag and to limit the risk of fragmentation.
The socialist Left Party, die Linke, looks set to fall below that threshold, currently logging 4.9%. However, another election bylaw might salvage their seats.
If a party can win three electoral districts outright, but only 4% of the popular vote, for example, then it can automatically claim seats equivalent to its 4% support.
The Left Party has won three districts and will thereby remain the smallest party in the Bundestag.
Voting results show continued regional disparities in performance for the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD).
It emerged as the strongest party in the eastern German state of Thuringia, winning 24% of votes. The Social Democrats came in second at 23.4%. In neighboring Saxony, the AfD also received the largest share of votes at 24.6%, and the SPD were also in second place there at 19.3%
The AfD traditionally performs better in Germany's less-wealthy eastern states. Its performances in larger and more affluent states like Bavaria (9%) and Rhineland Palatinate (9.7%) it was closer to its national average of between 10-11%
The gap between frontrunners,the center-left SPD, and nearest challengers, the center-right CDU/CSU, keeps widening as more votes are counted. A total of 1.7 percentage points now lies between the SPD and the conservatives.
Other parties: 8.6%
DW correspondent Nina Haase tweeted a video of celebrations from the center-left Social Democrat headquarters.
DW's Giulia Saudelli, reporting from the Green Party's headquarters, tweeted that it was "party time" there too. "Despite some disappointment for their placement in the projections, the party is celebrating what it can — likely their best result yet in a federal election," she added.
Foreign policy experts told DW how they would like to see the role of the future German government develop.
Anthony Gardner, the former US Ambassador to EU said that: "Germany can move beyond just being cautious and now being more proactive."
He also called on a future German government to spend more, saying it was the country's "duty" to do so and to "stop beggaring its neighbors." Gardner also called on Germany to "abandon its orthodox views on debt."
He added that he was "personally thankful for the role that Angela Merkel played" and was the "adult in the room" during Donald Trump's US presidency.
Andrey Kortunov, the director general of the state-sponsored Russian International Affairs Council told DW that: "In Moscow, they [the government] would prefer to see continuity rather than change" when it comes to Germany's dealing with the Kremlin.
"I think it's clear that in Moscow they preferred to deal with Berlin rather than Brussels," he added.
Hannah Neumann, a European Union lawmaker for the German Green Party predicted that the issue of human rights will play a bigger role than under Angela Merkel and added that the Greens disagreed on Nord Stream 2.
German citizens cast their ballots for the German election on Sunday — but it was the vote of chancellor candidate Armin Laschet of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) that set social media buzzing after he broke the secret ballot system by folding his ballot paper incorrectly while casting his vote.
But observers with a keen eye also noticed another detail: The padlock on the ballot box was not properly secured. DW looks into the claims.
As more votes are counted, the center-left SPD keeps growing its small lead over the center-right CDU/CSU from initial projections and exit polls. It now has a 1.2 percentage lead over the conservatives.
Other parties: 8.5%
DW correspondent William Glucroft noted that nearly 1.4 million voters appeared to move from the center-right Christian Democrats to the SDP.
German party leaders held a roundtable debate following the close of the elections.
"I've always said that there is a lot of overlap with my neighbor," center-left Social Democrat leader Olaf Scholz said, gesturing to Greens chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock.
"Just the two of us won't be enough. I think it will have to be three parties. But let's wait until all the votes are counted," Scholz said.
The SPD leader declined to give a date for when a coalition would be formed, dismissing that as "absurd." But Scholz added that "it must be the case that I, that we, do everything to ensure that we are ready before Christmas."
Armin Laschet, the leader of center-right Christian Democrats, called their drop in votes "not good," laying partial blame on the losing of the advantage of incumbency.
Laschet also claimed a mandate for his party, saying: "The voters have given us the job to do. We'll have to find commonalities probably between three political parties."
"It's not getting together a government using mathematics. We want a government where we end up with a coalition that we enjoy [being a part of]. What we need is an alliance that unifies Germany," he said.
This is because the pro-business FDP walked out of talks between the CDU and the Green Party after a month of negotiations.
Markus Söder, leader of the Christian Democrats' Bavarian sister CSU party, praised Laschet. He said he thought the CDU leader was treated unfairly, referring to the incident where Laschet was caught laughing amid a somber speech by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Annalena Baerbock said "we are a team in all the exploratory talks. We want to lead the country but we still have a clear mandate for the Green Party to implement what we want to do in the next government."
She dismissed suggestions that the result from the Greens that showed a drop compared to polls in the summer meant that co-leader Robert Habeck would now take up the reins as leader.
"These are very interesting times as we see the parties cautiously start talking to each other," said Michaela Küfner, DW's chief political editor.
"During the debating round this evening there was a lot of political currency being put on the table, with Armin Laschet stressing that all parties in a coalition need to deliver to their voters, as if to say 'if you come into a coalition with the conservatives dear Greens and Free Democrats you will see a lot of points translating into policy and also a lot of ministries,'" Küfner reported from CDU headquarters Sunday evening.
The process could take weeks, or even months. Coalition negotiations in 2017 were the longest in German history. This is because the FDP walked out of talks between the CDU and the Green party after a month of negotiations.
"What we can clearly see right now is that we have two potential kingmakers in this party landscape, one is the Green Party, and the other are the Free Democrats (FDP). Those are the two parties that are essentially now at the disposition of the bigger parties as the talk about trying to form a government," said Melinda Crane, DW's chief political correspondent.
"The question will be what can either Olaf Scholz, of the Social Democrats, or Armin Laschet, if he in fact does have the numbers that work mathematically, offer to those two other parties?" she added.
"The SPD and the Greens have a lot of commonality. But there are quite a few big gaps between the Greens and the neoliberal Free Democrats. The one thing to keep your eye on now in the coming days is how do they position themselves vis a vis each other?" said Crane.
German voters have shaken up the country's political landscape. They have confined the dominance of the CDU/CSU and SPD to history — for now. It's a necessary change, says DW Editor-in-Chief Manuela Kasper-Claridge.
Jamila Schäfer, deputy chairwoman for the parliamentary Green Party told DW: "For us, it's very clear that we firstly have to wait for the results. But what we can see now is that the voters in Germany have voted for change and we can see in every poll that climate justice and also social justice are the hot topics of this election. That also gives us the clear responsibility to negotiate for a strong government where those topics are on the top of the agenda."
New projected results have been released again, showing the gap between the center-left SPD and the conservative CDU/CSU widening even further. What started off as a dead heat has turned into a full percentage point lead for the SPD. The Greens are falling back from initial numbers.
Other parties: 8.6%
DW reporter Jaafar Abdul Karim has been speaking to voters in Germany's capital city Berlin. He said he has encountered an array of different reactions on the streets, with some voters expressing surprise and others thinking the result was expected.
Among Berlin voters, he said that climate change and social justice were hot topics. Some voters told him that they will miss Angela Merkel because she gave them stability. But some think it's time for change, Karim told DW.
On social media, users criticized that the lock on the ballot box, in which CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet was seen putting his ballot, was unlocked.
Do ballot boxes have to be locked for a valid voting process? No. "The ballot boxes must be locked, but it is not legally stipulated in which form they must be locked," said Florian Burg, press spokesman for the Federal Returning Officer, when asked by DW.
There were also photos of a broken election seal at a polling station in the city of Preussisch Oldendorf in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which some Twitter users viewed as voting fraud. The city's mayor, Marko Steiner, told DW that these were old seals from an earlier election. The urns were, however, still secured with locks as can be seen in the photo.
FDP party leader Christian Lindner says he wants to negotiate with all democratic parties, but said a coalition with the CDU/CSU and the Greens would have the "greatest agreement on content" in comments on public broadcaster ZDF.
In a speech to the party faithful, he called for a political reawakening in Germany, and said the party shared common ground with the Greens.
"What unites the Greens and the FDP is that both have run independent election campaigns. Both have opposed — from different perspectives — the status quo of the grand coalition (the incumbent coalition between the CDU/CSU and the SPD)," Lindner said. "The parties in the grand coalition, on the other hand, have not made any gains overall compared to the last election. And that's why there can be no more of the same in Germany. Now is the time for a new departure."
He said the FDP had "achieved one of the best election results in its history."
The gap between the CDU/CSU and the SPD is widening. The latest projected results put the center-left party 0.6 percentage points ahead of the conservative bloc.
Chancellor candidate for the far-right AfD, Tino Chrupalla said his party had achieved a "solid result." "We have a core voter base that we have consolidated," he said, adding that the traditional parties' goal of pushing the AfD out of the Bundestag had clearly failed.
Co-leader Alice Weidel underscored his comments, saying "Despite all the prophecies of doom," the AfD was not voted out of the Bundestag.
Weidel said her party had been at a disadvantage in this election, while the Greens had been "hyped up" by the media.
Voters in Germany's capital city Berlin hoping to cast their ballot faced widespread queues and chaos at polling stations.
A number of factors have been blamed for the disruption, including the number of polls — three are taking place simultaneously — as well as coronavirus hygiene measures and ballot paper shortages.
Germany's election officials have reassured voters that they still would be able to cast ballots as long as they were in a queue at 6 p.m. local time when the polling officially closes.
Greens chancellor candidate, Baerbock, praised her party’s performance as its "best result in history" in a speech to her supporters in Berlin. The preliminary result of 14.6% is well ahead of its previous best result of 10.7% in 2009.
"We ran for the first time to shape this country as a leading force," Baerbock said. "We wanted more," she conceded, but said that did not work out because of the party’s mistakes and her mistakes. "This country needs a climate government," stressed Baerbock. "That's what we're continuing to fight for now with all of you."
Two regional elections took place in German capital Berlin and the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania on Sunday.
In Berlin, the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens were nearly tied according to exit polls from public-funded broadcasters Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg and ZDF. The SPD, with top candidate Franziska Giffey, is set to take between 21.5 and 23%, while the Greens' Bettina Jarasch is at 22 to 23.5%.
Berlin is currently governed by a coalition government led by the SPD along with the hard-left Die Linke (The Left) and the Greens. According to the exit polls, this coalition could be possible again. The vote for the Berlin's House of Representatives will also determine who succeeds Michael Müller as the city's next mayor, who has decided not to run this time around.
In Germany's Mecklenburg- Western Pomerania, the SPD were shown to have clearly won the state election with 39% of the vote. The result indicates a strong increase compared to the 2016 election, when the SPD won the vote with 30.6%.
The results may slightly affect the composition of Germany's upper house, the Bundesrat. But the composition of the rest of the house will not change until the next set of state elections.
The leader of the Social Democrats, Olaf Scholz, is speaking, following the exit poll results showing his party neck-and-neck with the Christian Democrats.
"I'm very happy to see so many of you here and I'm very pleased that the citizens of this country have decided that the SPD is doing well and is a real success."
"It's going to be a long election night, that’s for sure," he said, before adding: "Another thing that's for sure is that many people have voted for the Social Democrats because they want a change of government and they want the chancellor to be Olaf Scholz."
"We said we want more respect in this society, to ensure industrial modernization and to stop climate change," Scholz told his supporters. He added that the exit polls were a "mandate" for the SPD to push for these objectives.
At the SPD party headquarters where Scholz was speaking, DW correspondent Nina Haase said the crowd watching him were, "celebrating a strong candidate who has really managed to turn around the party." She added that Scholz had "pulled them back out of a long slump."
Further preliminary results have been released, with a continued razor-thin margin for the SPD.
Other parties: 8.0%
CDU chancellor candidate Laschet has also claimed a mandate to lead a coalition.
"For the first time since 16 years Angela Merkel no longer ran as candidate for chancellor. Sixteen very good years for Germany, and this is why I want to thank the German Chancellor Angela Merkel first and foremost for her work," he said in a speech.
"But, it was clear to us that without her in office it was going to be a tight election campaign. It was going to be neck-and-neck. And that's exactly what happened."
He said there preliminary results were no reliable, but that "we cannot be happy with these results."
"It would seem that for the first time, we are going to have a German government with three coalition partners and we as the CDU have received a clear mandate from our voters: a vote cast for the Union is a vote cast against a left government. This is why we will do everything we can to form a German government led by the CDU."
"Because what Germany needs is a coalition for more sustainability in every sense of the word. For climate protection, but also for finances. We bear responsiblity for the generations to come, for our children and our grandchildren, particularly for the climate."
Other parties: 8.1%
FDP Secretary General Volker Wissing has refused to speculate about possible coalitions. "It can still be an exciting evening," he said on public broadcaster ARD. "It is the time to be happy about this outstanding vote."
The secretary general of the CDU has expressed disappointment with exit poll results.
"The losses are bitter compared to the last election" in 2017, when the CDU/CSU scored more than 30%, Paul Ziemiak told reporters.
He said his party was still hoping to lead a coalition including the Greens and the pro-business FDP.
Secretary-general of the sister CSU party, Markus Blume, saw some success in the election, saying the conservatives had prevented a major swing to the left. "Many had, after all, already written off the CDU/CSU in recent days and weeks, and we always said it would be very close in the final," Blume told public broadcaster ZDF.
"And now suddenly it's there, the photo finish," Blume continued. "And the decisive thing is that there is now obviously — according to the polls anyway — no majority for a left-wing alliance in this country. That is, to prevent a slide to the left, we have achieved this electoral goal, which we have clearly formulated."
Left party head Susanne Hennig-Wellsow has expressed disappointment at the exit polls. "This is a heavy blow for us," she said. "We have lost quite badly."
She admitted that the party had made mistakes over the past few years.
SPD Secretary-General Lars Klingbeil says his party has a clear mandate to form a coalition.
"The SPD has the mandate to govern. We want Olaf Scholz to be chancellor," Klingbeil said after the exit polls were released.
"We always knew it would be a close race. We knew it would be a close election campaign," Klingbeil said.
Klingbeil called it an "insane success" for the SPD, saying he was overjoyed.
His enthusiasm was matched by screams in the party room.
Green Party federal manager Michael Kellner has expressed disappointment. At one point during the campaign the party had been polling at almost double the exit poll results.
"We have made significant gains, but it is difficult for me to be really happy about these gains," Kellner was quoted as saying by DPA news agency. "We made our own mistakes," Kellner said. We will "look calmly after the election result, what we draw lessons from it."
He said there was still a clear preference for a coalition with the SPD.
He congratulated the Social Democrats "on a major election success" and said the CDU/CSU had suffered a "historically bad election result."
His opinion contrasted with the cheering at the party headquarters that came as the 15% result was announced.
Because Germans are increasingly splitting their ballot between the country's major parties, gone are the days when one party would win a dominant share of the vote — thus, rule by coalition has become a fact of political life. For the past eight years, the two biggest parties, the CDU and the SPD, have governed together. An unexpected result revealed by exit polls means that this coalition could continue.
Analysts saw an SPD coalition with the Green party as highly probable, but given they don't have enough of the vote together, a larger alliance would be necessary, possibly with the pro-business FDP.
Exit polls show that there is a dead heat between the center-left SPD and the conservative CDU/CSU bloc. Both parties received 25% of the vote, according to exit polls.
The exit polls show that the Greens received 15% of the vote, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) 11%, the pro-free market Free Democrats (FDP) 11% and the Left party 5%.
Other parties 8%
If these results hold, then this opens a multitude of coaltion possibilities.
With about half an hour to go until polls close, buzz is slow to build at the various party headquarters, our correspondents are reporting.
However, a protest was building at the site of an AfD event in Berlin.
Exit polls are due in less than an hour, revealing which parties will have the strongest position to lead a coalition.
The Federal Election Commissioner has released official figures for voter turnout so far. By 2 p.m., 36.5% of the eligible population had cast their vote across the country. That is down from 41.1% at the 2017 election at the same time. However, this does not include the record number of postal votes.
More than 40% of votes are expected to come by post (compared to 28.6% in 2017), so that could push the final voter turnout above the 76.2% of 2017.
"As expected, the currently determined voter turnout is lower than the 2017 figure, as we assume a significantly higher proportion of absentee voters, whose turnout will be determined at a later date as part of the determination of the final election results," Federal Election Commissioner Georg Thiel said in a statement.
The commissioner called on all eligible voters to participate in the election. At the time the figures were collated, there were still four hours left to vote.
A smattering of earlier state and city figures had suggested a slightly higher turnout.
DW political correspondent Hans Brandt says that the SPD’s Scholz looks to be in a better position today, but that the CDU's Laschet has enjoyed a surge in the past few days with endorsement from Merkel and Bild tabloid, potentially giving him enough of a push to take the most votes.
However, the record number of postal votes may have negated any last-minute campaigning by candidates, making it difficult to predict what will happen.
Watch his full analysis where he covers the conservative tendencies of Germany's older voters, the migration crisis, Merkel's legacy and the Greens' campaign woes.
As we reported earlier, the CDU's chancellor candidate, Armin Laschet, made a mistake when casting his ballot. Laschet folded his ballot paper in such a way that it was possible to see how he had voted. This is a violation of the secrecy of the ballot. As it says on the website of the Federal Election Commissioner, a voter must fold the ballot paper "in such a way that their vote is not recognizable."
Accordingly, the election committee of the polling station should have prevented Laschet from dropping his ballot paper into the ballot box.
In response to a question from DW's fact checking department, the press office of the Federal Election Commissioner referred to a statement on Twitter, in which Laschet is not mentioned by name. There it says that the rule serves to "ensure that other voters are not influenced." In this instance, it saw no voter influence, since "a nationally known politician (...) voted for his own party, as expected." As could be seen in photos, Laschet voted for the CDU with his first and second votes.
There will be no consequences for the vote count as a result of the incident. "If there is a misfolding, the election committee will distribute a new ballot paper. If the ballot nevertheless reaches the ballot box, it can no longer be sorted out and is valid," the statement from continues.
Initial signs point towards a slightly higher voter turnout in the election compared to 2017.
In North Rhine-Westphalia almost 45% of voters in eight districts have voted so far, compared to about 40% in 2017.
In Berlin, authorities reported 27.4% turnout so far, compared to 27.2% in 2017.
According to public broadcaster ZDF, turnout in the two largest cities in Bavaria is significantly higher than in 2017.
Local outlets are reporting a turnout of 36.56% in Lower Saxony so far, compared to 32.08% at the same time in the last election.
And in the state of Bremen, 27.2% of eligible voters have cast their vote so far, compared to 27.1% in 2017 at the same time, according to local reports.
Bear in mind, however, that these figures do not include the record number of postal votes. Official, country-wide, preliminary voter turnout figures will be released in about an hour.
With the departure of Angela Merkel, a major question for voters was how the new chancellor would fare on the international stage and what that means for Germany's role in the world. Immigration and social justice were also key campaign issues.
Rising climate awareness in recent years has seen emissions-reduction efforts become a key issue.
The handling of coronavirus pandemic and how to deal with the economic effects of lockdown also played a significant role.
DW correspondents are reporting long lines at voting stations across Berlin. This comes despite a record number of postal votes.
Early this afternoon we are expecting preliminary turnout figures, giving us some indication of how many people are voting. In 2017, voter turnout was 76.2%. In 2013 it was 71.5%.
Some Berlin polling stations have been affected by a mix-up in ballot papers, causing delays and invalid votes. The stations were given ballots from the wrong district, leading to the temporary closure of those stations and votes on the incorrect ballots being declared invalid.
The Green Party's Annalena Baerbock has voted at a polling station in Potsdam. She encouraged all eligible voters to make sure they voted.
When Baerbock was named the Green Party's first-ever chancellor candidate in April, she was credited for her party's remarkable rise in opinion polls later that month. She was seen as representing a new generation.
Since then, she has she suffered from criticism that targeted her personal credibility and the Greens polling fortunes have taken a turn for the worse.
But while the Greens are now polling well behind the two leading parties, on around 16 to 17%, they are still credible kingmakers.
Compare that with 1998, when the Green Party first entered a ruling coalition. Back then, they had garnered a mere 6.7% in the federal election.
The parties put forward their candidate ahead of the election campaign. Once a new government is in place, the German president nominates a chancellor to be elected by the Bundestag.
This is typically the main candidate from the senior coalition partner in the newly-formed government. To be elected, the chancellor candidate needs an absolute majority from lawmakers. So far, all chancellors, including Merkel, have been elected in the first round.
There's something of a furor about the way CDU candidate Armin Laschet cast his ballot in the Bundestag election.
He did it in such a way that bystanders could see what he had marked, and photographers caught the moment on camera.
Because of rules about the secrecy of the ballot, voters are not really allowed to cast their ballots openly. The voter must fold it "in such a way that his vote is not recognizable," according to the website of the Federal Election Commissioner.
If the ballot is discernible, the election board would have to reject the voter.
Because Germans are increasingly splitting their ballot between the country's major parties, gone are the days when one party would win a dominant share of the vote — thus, rule by coalition has become a fact of political life.
For the last eight years, the two biggest parties, the CDU and the SPD, have governed together. However, polls have indicated that this year, the CDU and SPD will not receive 50% of the votes put together.
With the SPD as the likely winner, they will have to choose who to team up with in order to represent at least half of the voters. Analysts see a coalition with the Green Party as highly probable, but if the Greens don't do well enough, a three-party alliance will be necessary.
This could either be with the Left Party or the pro-free market FDP. There is also the possibility of the so-called "German flag" coalition — the SPD, the CDU, and the FDP — whose representative colors, when put together, are the same as those of the German flag.
For more on what coalitions are possible, check out our gallery below for all the options:
It's lunchtime in Germany, but what meal would each of the three main candidates to be chancellor choose to celebrate election success later today?
All would opt for something quite traditional, according to a round of interviews conducted recently with the taz newspaper.
Green candidate Annalena Baerbock chose a true German classic. "If I have to decide on one thing, it's asparagus, done very classically with potatoes as a side dish."
As a guilty treat for dessert, she'd go for banana split with chocolate ice cream.
The conservative Armin Laschet said his wife Susanne's broccoli casserole would be favorite.
"I associate it with very nice family dinners - long, relaxed, lots of fun," he told the newspaper.
Social Democrat Olaf Scholz took the meat option, with "Königsberger Klopse." The dish of meatballs in a creamy sauce takes its name from the former East Prussian, now Russian, city of Kaliningrad.
"It tastes like the old days. Today, 'Königsberger Klopse' is rarely seen on a restaurant menu," he said.
The meatball dish Königsberger Klopse "tastes like the old days," according to SPD candidate Olaf Scholz
Authorities have warned people in a neighborhood of the West German city of Wuppertal to avoid going to the polls while they deal with an unexploded bomb dating back to World War II that was discovered on Saturday night.
Five polling stations were within a 500-meter radius of the bomb. None of them were closed, however, and some people who ignored the warnings were still able to cast their ballot.
Authorities were hoping to deactivate the device by late Sunday morning. A spokesperson said that there were "no time difficulties" and all voters would still be able to make it to a polling station by 6 p.m.
There are 47 parties running in the election, but few have realistic hopes of crossing the 5% threshold needed to enter the Bundestag. The biggest group in the outgoing parliament was the center-right conservative bloc, made up of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister-party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
The center-left Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in the "grand coalition," were the second-largest. Also represented were the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which entered the Bundestag for the first time in 2017 and was the largest opposition party in the outgoing legislature. The others were the environmentalist Greens, who are expected to perform much better this time around; the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the socialist Left Party.
Conservative chancellor candidate Armin Laschet said after casting his vote at a school in Aachen in western Germany that the next stop was Berlin, after first popping back home. He called on all voters to come out to the polls because the result "will come down to every vote."
"It's an exciting day," he told reporters outside the polling station. "It's a day when the voters speak, not the politicians," he added.
The Social Democrats' Olaf Scholz spoke to reporters after casting his vote. "It's a very nice day today, the weather's already a very good sign," he said.
"And now I hope that as many citizens as possible will go to the polls, cast their votes, and make possible what's become apparent, namely that there will be a very strong result for the Social Democrats and that citizens will give me the mandate to become the next chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany," the SPD chancellor candidate added.
The leader of the Christian Democrats Armin Laschet has cast his ballot at a polling station. He had to stand in line like the rest of the voters at a polling station the western city of Aachen.
After being elected head of his party, Laschet was for some time the clear favorite to become Germany's next chancellor.
Despite this, he is regarded as having had an election campaign marred by gaffes, and recent polls have shown the CDU and its Bavarian sister party the CSU, trailing behind the Social Democrats.
Longtime chancellor Angela Merkel has tried to stay out of the battle to replace her. But with her party struggling, she took to the campaign trail in the hope of boosting her would-be heir's fortunes.
Markus Söder, the state premier for Bavaria, has cast his ballot. He is a member of the Christian Social Union (CSU) the sister party of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) that is limited to the southern state.
He tweeted a photo of himself dropping his vote in the ballot box, saying: "Today is the day of decision. Go vote and make use of you most important democratic right!"
"It will be a neck-and-neck final, it's down to every single vote," he added.
DW's Richard Walker said the campaign had been heavily focused on the candidates themselves, given that Angela Merkel has been in power for so long.
"She's been this extraodinary phenomenon here," said Walker. "There are so many younger voters who've known no other chancellor."
"What we've seen during the summer is the voters kicking the tires on all of these candidates. Olaf Scholz is the one who's emerged as the most popular. Much of the polling around these candidates really shows that he's the person that Germans trust more than the other two but the question is whether that's enough to get him over the line."
DW political correspondent Nina Haase said that the Olaf Scholz's Social Democrats (SPD) had "the most solid campaign" in the run-up to the vote.
"They simply did not make any mistakes, and that sounds easy, but if you look at what the conservatives [CDU] did, there was so much party infighting between the official chancellor candidate Armin Laschet and his rival from Bavaria, from the sister party [CSU], Markus Söder, who was sort of sending attacks over from the south, criticizing Laschet for the bad polling results and saying he would have been the better chancellor candidate."
"And if you look at Annalena Baerbock from the Greens, there were allegations of plagiarism, she made some mistakes in her CV, she had to correct that. And Olaf Scholz just didn't do any of that."
Haase added that Scholz is a known face in German politics, having served the outgoing government as finance minister and as Angela Merkel's deputy. "People know him as an efficient crisis manager, albeit not the most charismatic one," she added.
Olaf Scholz has voted in his Potsdam constituency. The former Hamburg mayor serves as finance minister and vice-chancellor under Merkel as part of the grand coalition.
There was already euphoria among Social Democrats, well ahead of election day. Polling has shown that Chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz has a good chance to succeed Angela Merkel.
DW's Sabine Kinkartz hit the road with his campaign trail to find out what voters were saying.
The Green Party's Annalena Baerbock has tweeted, urging voters to use to exercise their democratic right.
"Living in a democracy means having a choice," she said. "It's about all our futures."
DW's Nina Haase has been reporting from the German parliament, highlighting the unpredictability of the election with many voters saying they are undecided. She says it will also be important to watch the performance of smaller parties on which the larger ones will rely to form a coalition.
"Turnout will matter a great deal. There were so many undecided voters. Some 40% of Germans said last week that they were still undecided whether they were even going to go to the polls, and then if they went, who they would vote for."
She gave two reasons for this, firstly: "The incumbent chancellor is not running again and that is a historic first here for post-war Germany. Usually we have chancellors in office until they get voted out or they have to resign because of scandals."
Secondly, "most of the candidates are not that well known nationwide, and there is no clear successor in sight and there are plenty of coalition options on the table."
Germany's head of state, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has already voted at a Berlin polling station.
The president — a senior Social Democrat now neutral in his current role as Germany's president — earlier issued an appeal to all voters in a guest commentary for the Sunday edition of mass-circulation newspaper Bild. He urged all those eligible to vote.
Ahead of the vote, Steinmeier spoke to the UN General Assembly on Friday, promising that Germany would not change whatever the outcome of the election, and would remain a reliable international partner.
As well as changes to the lower house of parliament the Bundestag, voting on Sunday will also affect the composition of the upper house — but only slightly.
The composition of the Bundesrat is decided by the regional elections in each German state, and there are two of these today.
One is in the capital, Berlin, while the other is in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The composition of the rest of the house will not change until the next set of state elections.
The vote for the Berlin's House of Representatives will also determine who succeeds Michael Müller as the city's next mayor.
Voters in Berlin will also get to have a say in a referendum on the takeover of large housing corporations.
DW's Jared Reed has been at a polling station in central Berlin to find out what was on voters' minds. The environment was the big issue here.
The German electoral system produces coalition governments. It seeks to unite the principles of majority rule and proportional representation. Each voter casts two ballots. The first is for what is called a "direct" candidate from their constituency and the second is for a political party.
Any party that gets more than 5% of the votes is guaranteed a place in the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag.
The 5% system ensures that both big and small parties are represented, but it has led to the legislature becoming the second-biggest in the world with a possible 900 seats this time around.
The reason is the complicated German electoral law, and the mandates for the "overhang" seats (Überhangmandate) and compensation "leveling" seats (Ausgleichsmandate) that assure the composition of the Bundestag will be proportionate to the actual votes for the parties.
As Angela Merkel's conservatives slipped behind the center-left Social Democrats, the chancellor was forced to break her pledge not to get involved in the election campaign. The CDU's Armin Laschet has played on fears of a swing to the left in his campaigning, and the gap narrowed in the final stretch.
The SPD's Olaf Scholz is eager to hold on to his lead, seeking to convince voters that he is the most credible successor to Merkel.
Meanwhile, the Greens are appealing to voters on the theme of climate change, but face the challenge of attracting older voters.
DW went to see how the parties were responding to polling ahead of the big day.
There are three candidates seen as having a genuine chance:
Annalena Baerbock is the lead candidate for the Greens, with a focus on the environment. Following the Greens surge in polls earlier this year, they may become a kingmaker in coalition talks. Baerbock has been joint leader of the party, alongside Robert Habeck, since 2018. Although she has little government experience, media pundits praised her strong performances in TV debates.
Armin Laschet represents Angela Merkel's conservative CDU and has led the party since earlier this year, following an internal power struggle. A long negotiation with Markus Söder, head of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, over who would take the role of chancellor candidate delayed his campaign start. He suffered in the polls following some high-profile public faux-pas, scandals, and criticism.
Olaf Scholz serves as finance minister and Angela Merkel's vice chancellor. He is the lead candidate of the Social Democrats, currently the junior partners in the governing coalition. The former Mayor of Hamburg is the only main candidate who is not a party chair. He has enjoyed a surge of popularity in the polls in the run-up to the election and was seen as the winner of the final TV debate. He has also been plagued by his own share of scandals in his position as finance minister.
Hello and welcome to our live updates on election day in Germany, with three candidates for chancellor in the running to succeed Angela Merkel.
Polls open at 8 a.m. local time (0600 GMT/UTC) and stay open until 6 p.m., when first official exit polls (usually a reliable indicator of the final results) are expected. We'll be keeping you up to date throughout.
Roughly 60.4 million people in Germany are eligible to vote, though it's unlikely all of them will be rushing to polling stations on Sunday. There's every chance, given the coronavirus pandemic, that more will have voted by mail in advance than ever before.
President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a senior Social Democrat once upon a time but neutral in his current role as Germany's president, issued an appeal to all voters in a guest commentary for the Sunday edition of mass-circulation newspaper Bild.
"Every vote counts, your vote counts. So I ask you, go and vote today! Whoever takes part will be heard, whoever doesn't vote lets others decide for them," Steinmeier wrote.
Judging by the opinion polls, every vote really could count in this election. The results appear wide open with little certainty over which party might emerge on top, let alone what coalitions might eventually be possible after the votes are in.
Merkel won't just be leaving as chancellor of Germany. She'll also be handing over an important role in international politics. Here, foreign correspondents look back on Merkel's 16 years as chancellor.
rc,ab,aw,km/rt (AFP, dpa, Reuters, AP)