Merkel bids for fourth term as Germans head to the polls

Chancellor Angela Merkel was widely expected to win a fourth term in office as Germans went to the polls on Sunday in an election that is also likely to see the farthest right-wing party in 60 years, the anti-migrant Alternative for Germany, win seats in parliament.

Merkel campaigned on her record as chancellor for 12 years, emphasizing the country’s record-low unemployment, strong economic growth, balanced budget and growing international importance.

That’s helped keep her conservative bloc well atop the polls ahead of Sunday’s election over the center-left Social Democrats of challenger Martin Schulz.

Schulz voted together with his wife Inge in the city hall of his hometown of Wuerselen in western Germany.

“I hope that as many people as possible will cast their vote today and strengthen the democratic future of Germany,” Schulz told reporters.

Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Party and its sister party, the Bavaria-only Christian Social Union, have governed the country for the last four years with the Social Democrats in a so-called “grand coalition.” Most forecasts suggest that coalition will win another majority in Sunday’s election outcome, but several different coalition government combinations could be possible.

Pollsters said earlier in the week that many of the 61.5 million who were eligible to vote had remained undecided until the very last moment. That included Bernhard Sommerfeld, a 62-year-old book seller, who cast his vote Sunday morning in Berlin after the opening of the polling stations at 8 a.m. (0600GMT).

“I was really undecided,” Sommerfeld said. “I didn’t know which party I should cast my vote for — it was very difficult.”

Only a few people came to the polling stations on a cold and drizzly morning in the German capital, which also hosted its annual marathon Sunday. Many streets in the city were blocked as runners zigzagged their way through Berlin in an often festive mood with local bands playing on street corners and bystanders cheering and applauding.

Jens Schubert, an orchestra manager, also said this election was a difficult one for him.

“I usually vote for the same party from the left spectrum — the Green Party — but this time I voted for a different party,” the 54-year-old said as he came out of a polling station in Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood where Merkel was also expected to cast her vote later in the day.

The latest polls had Merkel’s conservative bloc at 34 to 37 percent support, the…

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