An exit poll in Germany suggests the two main rivals are tied in an election that will determine who will succeed Angela Merkel.
No single party has ever won a total majority in the country’s Bundestag (lower house of parliament), meaning politicians will likely be plunged into negotiations in the coming days.
One exit poll shows Mrs Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) neck-and-neck with about 25% of the vote.
It is the CDU/CSU bloc’s weakest result in a post-war federal election – with the party’s general secretary conceding the early exit polls “hurt”.
Another poll puts the SPD slightly ahead of its rival on 26% – prompting the party’s general secretary to claim it has a mandate to form a ruling coalition.
The infratest poll for the broadcaster ARD also suggested the Greens could be on track to win as much as 15% and the far-right party AfD could garner 11%.
In the running to become the next chancellor is CDU/CSU bloc’s Armin Laschet and outgoing finance minister Olaf Scholz for the Social Democrats.
The environmentalist Greens, with candidate Annalena Baerbock, are also making their first run for the chancellery.
But Germany could face months of talks to form a coalition government after the election – with all three parties expected to need to join forces to clear the 50% seat threshold in the Bundestag.
It would mean Mrs Merkel does not relinquish power immediately and is required to stay on in a caretaker role for months.
Voting closed at 5pm UK time in a bitterly fought election where no clear front-runner emerged to replace Mrs Merkel’s after 16 years in power.
About 60.4 million people in the nation of 83 million were eligible to elect the new Bundestag, which will choose the next head of government.
The new chancellor will have to lead the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, which Germany so far has weathered relatively well thanks to large rescue programmes that have fuelled fresh debt.