German Chancellor Angela Merkel cast her vote Sunday (local time) in Berlin, confident of a fourth term in office with her conservative bloc enjoying a wide lead in the final polls, while the nationalist, anti-migrant Alternative for Germany party seemed poised to win seats in parliament for the first time.
Merkel campaigned on her record as chancellor for 12 years, emphasising the country’s record-low unemployment, strong economic growth, balanced budget and growing international importance.
That’s helped keep her conservative bloc well atop the polls ahead of the center-left Social Democrats of challenger Martin Schulz.
In Berlin, which was also hosting its annual marathon, many streets were blocked and some voters had to cross the marathon route as runners zigzagged their way through the German capital. A festive mood emerged, with bands playing on street corners and bystanders cheering and applauding.
Merkel arrived in the early afternoon to vote with her husband Joachim Sauer, whose umbrella shielded them from the cold drizzle. Merkel nodded and smiled at reporters but made no comments.
Schulz voted with his wife Inge in his hometown of Wuerselen in western Germany.
Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union and its sister party, the Bavaria-only Christian Social Union, have governed the country for the last four years with the Social Democrats in a so-called “grand coalition”. Most forecasts suggest that coalition will win another majority, but different coalition government combinations could be possible.
The latest polls had Merkel’s conservative bloc at 34 to 37 per cent support, the center-left Social Democrats with 21 to 22 per cent and the anti-migrant Alternative for Germany, or AfD, with 10 to 13 per cent support, enough to get into parliament.
If that happens, it would make AfD the farthest right-wing party in parliament for nearly six decades.
In a tweet, the Social Democrats urged people to get out and vote against the AfD, saying “it’s a right-wing extremist party that doesn’t belong in parliament.”
AfD’s Frauke Petry, a party chairwoman, fired back with her own tweet: “Live with it comrades, the trend to the left is over today.”
In addition to AfD, the Greens, the pro-business Free Democratic Party and the Left Party were all poised to enter parliament with poll numbers between 8 and 11 per cent support.
Many of Germany’s 61.5 million voters had remained undecided until the very last moment. That included Bernhard Sommerfeld, a 62-year-old bookseller.
“I was really undecided,” said Sommerfeld, who declined to say who he voted for in Berlin. “It was very difficult.”
Midway through the day, Germany’s federal election authority said national voter turnout was slightly down compared to the last election in 2013.
As of 2 p.m. Sunday, 41.1 per cent of eligible voters had cast their ballots, the Federal Returning Officer said. That compared to 41.4 per cent cast by that time in 2013, in an election where final turnout ended up at 71.5 per cent.
Absentee ballots are now considered in the 2 p.m. report, however, and they’re expected to be a record number of them this year.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier appealed to his fellow citizens to vote, saying “these elections are also about the future of democracy and the future of Europe.”
Countries across Europe have seen a rise of anti-migrant and populist parties in recent elections and several German pollsters have forecast that AfD may come in as the country’s third-strongest party.
The AfD’s campaign has been dominated by hostile slogans against the more than 1 million, mostly Muslim migrants who arrived in Germany in the last two years. They’re aiming to grab votes from other parties, including Merkel’s conservatives.
Preliminary results of the election will start to become available from 5am NZ time.