Germans were voting on Sunday to decide the political direction of Europe’s biggest economy, after nearly 16 years under Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Some 60,000 polling stations opened at 8 am (0600 GMT).
The three candidates to replace Merkel, Armin Laschet of the conservative CDU, Olaf Scholz of the centre-left SPD and Annalena Baerbock of the Greens – all cast their ballots in the first half of the day.
The pivotal elections are the SPD’s to lose after the party’s unexpected, but steady, rise to the top of the polls.
Scholz, 63, who has worked closely with Merkel as her finance minister during the last four years, is the front-runner to take over her chair in the chancellery, but only just.
After casting his ballot, Scholz said voters should choose the SPD so that he receives “the mandate to become the next chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany.”
The CDU’s Laschet, 60, lost ground during a lacklustre election campaign, but closed the gap in the polls to within a few percentage points in recent days.
Such small margins are going to be crucial as the parties position themselves for the coalition horse-trading after the results come out.
For the first time in its history, the Greens put forward a candidate for chancellor this year, but Baerbock has seen her popularity slide. The Greens are expected to come a distant third.
Merkel has led a conservative bloc – consisting of the CDU and their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) – to victory in the last four elections, defining Germany’s political culture for a whole generation.
She is the country’s second-longest serving leader, after Helmut Kohl, who took Germany through reunification.
“Merkel formed the biggest part of my political education, but we now want a change,” said 33-year-old voter Katharina Schoebinger, who was watching the Berlin marathon, which is taking place on the same day as the vote.
A former CDU voter who declined to give his name said Merkel had estranged conservatives with her decisions.
“She was the wrong woman at the wrong time who made the wrong decisions,” said the man in his 40s.
Most commentators see a three-party coalition as the most likely outcome of the elections. No party has managed much more than a quarter of the vote share in surveys during the campaign.
If Germany stays with the CDU/CSU, it is a mandate for continuity, with promises of tax reductions that target mainly middle and higher earners, tight control of public debt and a climate change agenda that focuses on carbon emissions trading.
If Germany swings left, the tax reductions are likely to favour middle and lower earners, with a higher top rate of tax; a minimum wage of 12 euros (14 dollars) per hour would become a reality; and the public purse would be opened for investment in areas such as renewables and public infrastructure.
When it comes to coalitions, the inclusion of the Greens, the Free Democrats (FDP), or the hard-left Die Linke in coalition would bring a host of new policies to the table: the Greens want to do far more on climate change and building up renewables; the FDP have a low-tax and pro-business agenda; Die Linke voters would want to see higher taxes on the rich and less on the lower earners.
Despite losing the prospect of leading a coalition government, the Greens – boosted perhaps by Friday’s climate protests – still hope to maximize their chances of getting into government.
If they manage about 16-17 per cent of the vote as expected, it would be a remarkable doubling of their mandate since the last election in 2017.
The Bundestag is likely to have its first meeting on October 26, a council of senior lawmakers decided on Sunday in a unanimous vote.
The first session is primarily to elect the president of the Bundestag and his or her deputies. October 26 would be the latest the new Bundestag could wait to convene, as per the rules of Germany’s constitution. It requires an initial meeting within 30 days of the vote.
There will be initial meetings starting next week of the new legislative factions, once vote shares are tabulated.