More than 60 million Germans are eligible to vote in Sunday’s federal election which is expected to favour Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Though she is expected to cruise to victory in the elections, but she is also to face the breakthrough into parliament of hard-right populists for the first time in Germany’s post-war history.
Voting begins at 0600 GMT in Europe’s biggest economy and exit polls are announced at 1600 GMT, with few expecting surprises given Merkel’s double-digit poll lead.
For months, the woman now dubbed the “eternal chancellor” has been the favourite over her centre-left rival Martin Schulz and looked set to win another term and match the 16-year reign of her mentor Helmut Kohl.
To many in the West, a fourth Merkel victory will come as a relief in a turbulent world, with hopes she will serve as a calm-headed counterweight to US President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin and as the key EU ally to reformist French President Emmanuel Macron.
But the election is also expected to mark a milestone for the four-year-old Alternative for Germany (AfD) which, like right-wing populists elsewhere, rails against migrants, Muslims and mainstream parties.
“The AfD’s entry into the Bundestag marks an epochal step forward for the far right,” said Joerg Forbrig of think-tank the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
By entering parliament, he said, “the xenophobic, revisionist and anti-European political force” will have heightened visibility and access to campaign finance, dozens of offices and hundreds of staff.
After a “vicious” campaign, in which the AfD demanded an end to German guilt over two world wars, Forbig warned that “German democracy is about to face its biggest stress test ever”.
At Merkel’s final major stump speech Friday in the southern city of Munich, right-wing activists tried to drown her out with whistles and vuvuzelas and chants of “get lost”.
But the 63-year-old refused to be derailed from her stability-and-prosperity mantra, telling the crowd that “the future of Germany will definitely not be built with whistles and hollers”.
Additional report: AFP