BERLIN (AFP) - Faced with the near-certainty of Chancellor Angela Merkel's re-election, voters in Germany headed to the polls on Sunday (Sept 24) divided between a hankering for stability and a hunger for change.
"It's a bit frustrating that Merkel has been around for so long," said 30-year-old Christian as he went to cast his ballot in central Berlin under an overcast and drizzling sky.
"This election is not about who wins the chancellery, it's already clear that she's going to continue," he told AFP, in a nod to the surveys giving Dr Merkel's conservatives a commanding lead.
Although Dr Merkel's fourth term appears all but assured, voters also walked into polling booths with warnings ringing in their ears that the hard-right nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) could emerge as the largest opposition party.
In east Berlin, in an area where fringe parties on the left and right took nearly half the votes in a local election last year, Mr Wolfgang Lange, 75, was among the first to cast his ballot at a school surrounded by apartment blocks.
"Merkel is tired but she is going to win," he predicted, adding that he was disappointed that a lacklustre election campaign had addressed so few of his concerns.
"What matters most to me is peace and fighting against social inequality. Is it normal that small pensions are taxed so heavily?" he asked.
Thirty-seven-year-old Wolf Herbert, wearing a hooded sweater and a baseball cap, said 12 years of Dr Merkel had been enough, and he hoped "someone else would take her place".
"The employment market is very fragmented and employers are abusing short-term contracts," he fumed.
But he said such grumbles were not enough to tempt him to vote for the AfD, tipped to become the first openly anti-migrant nationalist party in over half a century to win seats in the Bundestag.
Describing them as "dangerous", he said he hoped they would get "as few votes as possible" as he left a hotel in the capital doubling up as a polling station.
Law student Sabine Maier agreed, dismissing the AfD as "too extreme". But she also criticised the media for always homing in on the most outrageous comments by the upstart party.
"They aren't all fascists," she said, locking up her bike.
But she sighed as her eyes fell on a giant AfD election posture of three women on a beach with the slogan "Burkas? We prefer bikinis".
"Sometimes they really do go too far," she said, adding that she was on her way to help out at the Berlin marathon to "get her mind off the election".
Across the country, in the western city of Frankfurt, voters also expressed concern about the AfD's steady rise in the opinion polls.
"I hope we won't see a shift to the right in Germany, I'm optimistic," said Mr Alexander, a 40-year-old banker as he cast his vote at a school accompanied by his wife and two children.
As in Berlin, voters in Germany's financial hub expressed mixed feelings about Dr Merkel's seemingly inevitable victory.
"I hope Angela Merkel gets to stay on. She has everything under control," said retired nurse Eva Maria, 68, adding that she didn't care much for the chancellor's main challenger, Mr Martin Schulz of the Social Democrats.
"I just don't like that Schulz guy," she said.
At the same polling station, architect Karin, 47, said she was resigned to her ballot making little difference.
"I don't think my vote will change much," she said.
"It would be good if the time in office were limited to just two terms, so there could be change," she mused.