FRANKFURT • Chancellor Angela Merkel may be set to win a fourth term in Sunday's elections, but exactly what Germany's next government will look like is anyone's guess as thorny coalition talks loom.
Despite having a double-digit poll lead, Dr Merkel's conservative CDU/CSU bloc is expected to fall short of a parliamentary majority and the kingmakers they choose could shake up Berlin's stance on anything from euro zone reforms to refugee policies.
For the first time since reunification in 1990, a record six parties are set to enter Parliament. And with the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) possibly becoming the third-strongest party, an election campaign widely described as boring could spring a few surprises yet.
"We really don't know what kind of government we will get," said Ms Sudha David-Wilp, deputy director of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. "The political suspense will begin after the vote on Sunday."
The latest survey by the Emnid institute for Bild newspaper shows a slight dip in support for the CDU/CSU to 36 per cent, with the Social Democratic Party (SPD), led by Dr Merkel's main rival Martin Schulz, trailing at 22 per cent.
With neither side eager to continue their loveless "grand coalition", attention is shifting to the race for third place between four smaller parties - all polling at around 8 to 11 per cent.
"I'm telling everyone this election hasn't been decided yet," Dr Merkel told broadcaster RTL in an interview on Tuesday. With two recent polls suggesting 25 to 39 per cent of voters still undecided, it seems there is everything to play for.
"There's still a lot of volatility in the polls," said Mr Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin.
The liberal and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) are hoping for a comeback as Dr Merkel's junior coalition partner after crashing out of the Bundestag in 2013.
But the latest polls suggest the two natural bedfellows may need the help of a third party, the left- leaning Greens, to clinch a majority. Such a three-way tie-up, unprecedented in Germany, would involve some serious horsetrading given the stark ideological differences.
Dr Merkel could also find herself hamstrung on the European stage if the FDP maintains its objections to closer euro zone integration, as pushed for by French President Emmanuel Macron.
And, in a sign of the growing discontent, the anti-euro, anti-Islam and anti-immigration AfD is tipped to become the first hard-right party to clear the 5 per cent bar to win seats in the national Parliament since the end of World War II.
Despite months of infighting, the AfD has been inching ahead in the polls and could surpass the far-left Die Linke as the largest opposition party.