Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to cruise to victory in elections Sunday but also to face the breakthrough into parliament of hard-right populists for the first time in Germany’s post-war history.
Voting began at 0600 GMT in Europe’s biggest economy and exit polls are announced at 1600 GMT, with few expecting surprises given Merkel’s double-digit poll lead.
For months, the woman now dubbed the “eternal chancellor” has been the favourite over her centre-left rival Martin Schulz and looked set to win another term and match the 16-year reign of her mentor Helmut Kohl.
To many in the West, a fourth Merkel victory will come as a relief in a turbulent world, with hopes she will serve as a calm-headed counterweight to US President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin and as the key EU ally to reformist French President Emmanuel Macron.
But the election is also expected to mark a milestone for the four-year-old Alternative for Germany (AfD) which, like right-wing populists elsewhere, rails against migrants, Muslims and mainstream parties.
It has been polling at 11-13 percent and could become Germany’s third strongest party, driven by anger over the influx of one million migrants and refugees, many from war-torn Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, since 2015.
“The AfD’s entry into the Bundestag marks an epochal step forward for the far right,” said Joerg Forbrig of think-tank the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
By entering parliament, he said, “the xenophobic, revisionist and anti-European political force” will have heightened visibility and access to campaign finance, dozens of offices and hundreds of staff.