Germans vote to decide Merkel successor

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Germans have gone to the polls in a national election too close to call, with the centre-left Social Democrats mounting a strong challenge to retiring Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives.

Merkel has been in power since 2005 but plans to step down after the election, making the vote an era-changing event to set the future course of Europe's largest economy.

A fractured electorate means that after the election, leading parties will sound each other out before embarking on more formal coalition negotiations that could take months, leaving Merkel, 67, in charge in a caretaker role.

Campaigning in his home constituency of Aachen alongside Merkel, conservative candidate Armin Laschet said on Saturday that a leftist alliance led by the Social Democrats (SPD) with the Greens and the hard-left Linke party would destabilise Europe.

"They want to pull us out of NATO, they don't want this alliance, they want another republic," said Laschet, 60.

"I don't want the Linke to be in the next government."

Running against Laschet is Olaf Scholz of the SPD, the finance minister in Merkel's right-left coalition who won all three televised debates between the leading candidates.

Scholz, 63, has not ruled out a leftist alliance with The Left but said NATO membership was a red line for the SPD.

After a domestic-focused election campaign, Berlin's allies in Europe and beyond may have to wait for months before they can see whether the new German government is ready to engage on foreign issues to the extent they would like.

The splintered political landscape means a three-way coalition is likely.

Final opinion polls gave the Social Democrats a narrow lead, but the conservatives have reduced the gap in recent days and many voters were still undecided.

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