Polling predictions on Saturday suggested the race was too close to call, with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) holding a small but narrowing lead over Merkel’s party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
The closeness of the race coupled with Germany’s complicated voting system means it could take some time before a winning coalition is formed and the ultimate victor is known.
Those lining up as candidates to replace Merkel are Armin Laschet, a long-time ally of Merkel and leader of the CDU since January; Olaf Scholz, leader of the left-leaning SPD; and the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock.
At his final campaign rally Saturday in Potsdam, Scholz referenced concerns over climate change and said that, if elected, he wanted to agree an increase in the minimum wage to 12 euro ($14) an hour within the first year of government.
After voting on Sunday, he told reporters: “Now I hope that as many citizens as possible will go to the polls and cast their votes and make possible what has become apparent, namely that there will be a very strong result for the SPD. And that the citizens give me the mandate to become the next Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany.”
Baerbock cast her vote in her hometown of Potsdam on Sunday afternoon and, in brief comments after, she urged people to cast their votes in order to enter a new era, and emphasized the importance of democracy.
Laschet, meanwhile, held a final campaign rally with Merkel in the city of Aachen on Saturday during which the outgoing chancellor praised his “passion and heart” and said the election was about the country remaining “stable” and ensuring “that the youth have a future and we can still live in prosperity.”
After voting the following day, Laschet told reporters: “We all feel that this is a very important federal election, an election that decides the direction of Germany in the next few years, and that is why every vote counts, and that is why I hope everyone will use their right to go to the polls, so that democrats can elect a new government in the end.
“It’s an exciting day, and because it’s down to the wire, and you know that every vote counts, today is probably not about the politicians talking, but the voters,” he added. “Not an election day, but a day of the voter, which is always the highest day in democracy.”
Merkel, the second-longest serving Chancellor in German history, has been widely seen as a steady pair of hands in the face of challenges including the financial crisis of 2007-2008, Britain’s exit from the European Union, and, most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic.
She has been a driving force for European cohesion and attempted to maintain close ties with the United States and China.
Now, with her departure, a period of unaccustomed uncertainty beckons for Germany, the EU and the wider world, although shifts in Germany’s international policy are unlikely to be dramatic.
German politicians and officials were among those targeted, an EU official told CNN.
Greens could play kingmaker
German politics has long been dominated by the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, who have governed together in a coalition for the past eight years. But other parties have grown in popularity over the past decade as the CDU and SPD have lost ground.
This election is particularly close; the CDU and SPD have both held polling advantages, and the Green Party has also emerged as a serious contender. As a result, Baerbock stands to play the role of kingmaker in what are expected to be lengthy coalition negotiations.
The far-right AfD also remains a stubborn presence on the political scene, scrapping with the liberal Free Democratic Party for fourth place.
Both Laschet and Scholz — whose parties remain neck-and-neck in the polls — are familiar figures in German politics.
Scholz, 63, has belonged to the SPD since he was 17 and has been serving as the vice-chancellor and German finance minister since 2018, earning him increased visibility as he navigated Germany’s economic response to the pandemic.
His chief opponent, Laschet, 60, is a long-time Merkel ally and the CDU’s deputy leader since 2012. He was selected as the party’s candidate in January 2021 after a torturous leadership tussle, and has been premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, since 2017.
Baerbock caused a brief sensation in German politics when she surged in the polls early in the campaign, prompting voters to wonder whether she could become the country’s first Green chancellor.
Some 60.4 million people age 18 and above are eligible to vote in this election, according to figures from Germany’s Federal Statistics Office.
Each will have two votes to cast — one for the candidate to represent their constituency, of which there are 299 in the Bundestag, or German parliament, and a second vote for their preferred party. A party’s share of “second votes” determines the number of seats that party gains in the Bundestag, according to proportional representation.
For a party to get into the Bundestag, it must win at least 5% of the second vote.
Many Germans have already cast their ballots; the coronavirus pandemic has increased the amount of postal voting that took place before polling day.
Kamimura Zoellner, a 32-year-old voter from Berlin, said she would prefer for Germany to stay on course with its current political set-up. “I do think the current government dealt with the coronavirus crisis reasonably well,” she told CNN on Sunday.
“And if you look at the economy, we are not doing that badly compared to other countries. Our economy didn’t collapse during the coronavirus crisis. We had a lot of help from the government …it really could have turned out much worse.”
Zoellner said that while she “knew at a national level who to vote for,” she was “torn” at a local level. “We live here in Berlin and local rules and regulations here have a direct impact on our lives — I do want to see change locally.”
CNN’s Nadine Schmidt reported from Berlin, while Laura Smith-Spark and Rob Picheta wrote from London. CNN’s Vasco Cotovio, Frederik Pleitgen and Alex Carey contributed to this report.