Germany votes as Angela Merkel seeks new term
Voting is under way in Germany's elections, with Chancellor Angela Merkel vying for a third term in charge of Europe's most powerful economy.
Polls suggested Mrs Merkel's Christian Democrats may take the largest number of seats in parliament, or Bundestag.
But Mrs Merkel's coalition partner, the Free Democrats, may not gain the 5% vote share required to win any seats.
If so, Mrs Merkel may have to consider a coalition with her main rival Peer Steinbrueck's Social Democrats.
A coalition of Centre-Left, Left and Green parties is also a possibility.
This election is one of the most important in years because of Germany's dominant role in the eurozone.
With the biggest population of any EU state, it enjoys a GDP that far outstrips the economies of its partners and is crucial to decisions on tackling the eurozone's debt crisis.
Nearly 62 million people are eligible to vote in the ballot, which opened at 08:00 local time (06:00 GMT) and is due to close at 18:00.
Elections in Germany are often followed by a period of several weeks of coalition talks before the final shape of the government emerges.
On Saturday, the main parties concluded their campaigns with large rallies.
During Angela Merkel's eight years in office, she has protected Germany from a global financial crisis and the possible break-up of the euro.
If re-elected, she will be the only major leader to have survived such turbulent times.
Only Helmut Kohl and Konrad Adenauer of Germany's post-war chancellors have won a third term.
But Angela Merkel and her advisers remain cautious. Although her conservative party, the CDU/CSU, will get the largest number of votes, she is not guaranteed an absolute majority.
Mrs Merkel - who cast her ballot in Berlin - earlier asked for votes to continue with her government's policies into 2017.
"I ask the people in Germany to give me a strong mandate so that I can continue to serve Germany for another four years, for a stronger Germany, a country which is well respected in Europe, which defends its interests but is also a friend of a lot of countries."
In Frankfurt, Peer Steinbrueck - who leads the opposition SPD, told his supporters to believe in the possibility of victory.
"The voters decide," he said, "not commentary beforehand."
"It's not a game. Don't believe it's decided yet - it isn't. I would ask for the voters' decision to be respected, because it's them, not political polls or certain observers, who decide an election."
The Free Democrats (FDP), whose best-known member is Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, has seen its fortunes decline sharply since the last election in 2009, when it won nearly 15% of the vote.
Analysts say the party, traditionally more liberal than the CDU/CSU, has struggled to stand out from its more powerful coalition partner on economic policy.
If the Free Democrats (FDP) do badly, as expected, the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) may find themselves looking to other small parties to form a broader, more fragile coalition.
According to an average of opinion polls tweeted by the London-based @electionista monitoring site, the CDU/CSU will get 38.6% of the vote to 25.8% for the SPD and 6.4% for the FDP.