German Chancellor Angela Merkel is one of the world's most powerful leader. She was called "the leader of the free world" as authoritarian populists were on the march in Europe and the United States. But, after deciding to give up office, she will soon leave her leading position in Germany and in the world.
New polling data shows the center-left Social Democrats leading by 4 percentage points, putting Merkel's CDU-CSU conservative alliance at risk of losing its majority in the German federal parliament (Bundestag).
Olaf Scholz, finance minister and vice-chancellor under Merkel as part of the grand coalition has voted in his Potsdam constituency. Scholz said that he hopes voters “will make possible ... a very strong result for the Social Democrats, and that citizens will give me the mandate to become the next chancellor of Germany.”
CDU-CSU alliance candidate for chancellor, Armin Laschet said in Aachen, on Germany’s western border, that the election “will decide on Germany’s direction in the coming years, and so it will come down to every vote.”
Merkel has won plaudits for steering Germany through several major crises. Her successor will have to tend the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, which Germany so far has weathered relatively well thanks to large rescue programs that have incurred new debt.
The Green Party's Annalena Baerbock has tweeted, urging voters to use to exercise their democratic right.
"Living in a democracy means having a choice," she said. "It's about all our futures."
The Greens favor a common European fiscal policy to support investment in the environment, research, infrastructure and education.
The most likely coalition scenarios see either the SPD or the conservative CDU/CSU bloc - whoever comes first - forming an alliance with the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP).
Scholz told supporters in Potsdam on Saturday that his preferred outcome was for the SPD and Greens to secure a majority to rule alone without a third partner.
Nina Haase, a political reporter of DW - German news network of Deutsche Welle -, said it will also be important to watch the performance of smaller parties on which the larger ones will rely to form a coalition.
"Turnout will matter a great deal. There were so many undecided voters. Some 40% of Germans said last week that they were still undecided whether they were even going to go to the polls, and then if they went, who they would vote for."
She gave two reasons for this, firstly: "The incumbent chancellor is not running again and that is a historic first here for post-war Germany. Usually we have chancellors in office until they get voted out or they have to resign because of scandals."
Secondly, "most of the candidates are not that well known nationwide, and there is no clear successor in sight and there are plenty of coalition options on the table."
Germany's head of state, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has already voted at a Berlin polling station.
The president — a senior Social Democrat now neutral in his current role as Germany's president — earlier issued an appeal to all voters. He urged all those eligible to vote.
Ahead of the vote, Steinmeier spoke to the UN General Assembly on Friday, promising that Germany would not change whatever the outcome of the election, and would remain a reliable international partner.
As well as changes to the lower house of parliament the Bundestag, voting on Sunday will also affect the composition of the upper house — but only slightly.
The composition of the Bundesrat is decided by the regional elections in each German state, and there are two of these today.
One is in the capital, Berlin, while the other is in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The composition of the rest of the house will not change until the next set of state elections.
The vote for the Berlin's House of Representatives will also determine who succeeds Michael Müller as the city's next mayor.
Voters in Berlin will also get to have a say in a referendum on the takeover of large housing corporations.
DW's Jared Reed has been at a polling station in central Berlin to find out what was on voters' minds. The environment was the big issue here.
The German electoral system produces coalition governments. It seeks to unite the principles of majority rule and proportional representation. Each voter casts two ballots. The first is for what is called a "direct" candidate from their constituency and the second is for a political party.
Any party that gets more than 5% of the votes is guaranteed a place in the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag.
The 5% system ensures that both big and small parties are represented, but it has led to the legislature becoming the second-biggest in the world with a possible 900 seats this time around.
The reason is the complicated German electoral law, and the mandates for the "overhang" seats (Überhangmandate) and compensation "leveling" seats (Ausgleichsmandate) that assure the composition of the Bundestag will be proportionate to the actual votes for the parties.