BERLIN (AFP) - Germans voted on Sunday in a closely watched election that is likely to hand Chancellor Angela Merkel a third term at the helm of Europe's top economy but may force her to govern with her main rivals.
After shepherding Germany through Europe's lengthy financial turmoil, Dr Merkel has emerged more popular than ever, seen as a safe pair of hands as the crisis felled leaders in France, Greece, Italy and Spain.
Polls suggest that voters will re-elect the 59-year-old pastor's daughter from East Germany, whose nickname "Mutti" ("Mummy") can seem at odds with her billing as the world's most powerful woman.
But the burning question is whether she will be able to keep her preferred coalition partner or be forced into an alliance with her centre-left rivals.
Under clear skies and mild temperatures, Dr Merkel, dressed in an autumnal russet blazer and her customary tailored trousers, walked to a central Berlin polling station to vote, accompanied by husband Joachim Sauer.
Voters trickled through the university cafeteria to cast their ballots.
"I think we have a good standard of living in Europe, and for me, this must remain stable. So, to me, voting for the extremes, on the left or the right, isn't an answer," nun Elisabeth Bauer told AFP.
Another voter, 26-year-old Marissa Kutscha admitted it had been a tough choice.
"I was extremely uncertain voting... because not much differentiates the parties," she said.
Nearly 62 million voters were called to the polls. Initial television estimates are expected shortly after booths close at 6pm (midnight in Singapore).
Dr Merkel boasts that her current centre-right coalition has been Germany's most successful since reunification in 1990, enjoying a robust economy and a low jobless rate.
But her stated aim for her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to stay in power with its junior partners, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), hinges on the smaller party's unpredictable fortunes.
"The continued governing by this coalition remains uncertain," said political scientist Gero Neugebauer from Berlin's Free University.
If the alliance fails to secure a ruling majority, Dr Merkel could be forced back into the arms of her traditional rivals, the Social Democrats (SPD), with whom she governed in a loveless "grand coalition" during her first term.
Under the watchful eye of Germany's European partners, a new euro-sceptic party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), is a wild card, potentially clawing enough support to send MPs into parliament or wooing away disgruntled centre-right voters.
"If the protest party manages to jump into the Bundestag (lower house of parliament), that may cost the black-yellow coalition power," Spiegel Online said, referring to the colour code for Merkel's current alliance.
Three pre-election opinion polls showed the AfD, which advocates ditching the single currency and an "orderly dissolution" of the 17-member euro zone, falling below the 5 per cent hurdle needed to enter parliament.
But some analysts have not ruled it out amid fresh Greek aid fears, stressing the difficulty of assessing the party's chances in the absence of an election track record and noting that supporters may not admit to backing it in surveys.
Dr Merkel hammered home Europe's importance for Germany at a last-ditch push for votes in Berlin on Saturday.
"The stabilisation of the euro is not just a good thing for Europe but it is also in Germany's fundamental interest," she said.
Dr Merkel's opponent, M rPeer Steinbrueck, 66, dressed in his signature red tie - his party's colour - voted with his wife in his western home city of Bonn.
"Today is election day. It's in your hands. Please go vote," he tweeted earlier.
His gaffe-prone campaign again stumbled in the home-stretch with a front-page photo of him making a surly middle-finger reply to a question on his limping candidacy.
The former finance minister in Dr Merkel's 2005-09 grand coalition has zeroed in on a growing low-wage sector and calls for a national minimum wage, but his SPD party still trailed the conservative bloc by 13 points in the last opinion poll.
Wrapping up at the stump, he urged voters to remove "the most inactive government that has made the least progress" in over two decades and mocked the famously ideologically flexible Dr Merkel for "going round and round".
Analysts say no major U-turns in economic policy are expected if a left-right alliance emerges from the election, including on Germany's Europe policy where the opposition has backed Merkel on key decisions.
Bild newspaper said on Sunday that whoever wins faces major problems, beginning with the ongoing euro crisis.
"The winner takes it all - all the troubles, too," it said.