Germans headed to the polls Sunday in a nationwide election as Chancellor Angela Merkel seeks her fourth term.
About 61.5 million people age 18 and older are eligible to vote at 88,000 locations, which opened at 8 a.m. local time and close at 6 p.m.
Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union, along with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, is projected to win about 34-36 percent of the vote, according to polls, far ahead of the Social Democrats’ 21-21 percent.
The far-right Alternative for Germany, which is polling at 10 percent to 13 percent, is projected to win seats for the first time in Bundestag, Germany’s national parliament. Also, six parties may be represented for the first time since World War 2.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier appealed on Sunday to citizens to cast their ballots.
“Voting is a civic duty. Go and vote!” the former foreign minister wrote in an opinion piece published in the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. “Every vote counts — your vote counts. People who don’t vote allow others to decide the future of our country.”
In 2013, the participation rate was 71.5 percent.
At midday, several states or cities reported a higher turnout than four years ago.
Merkel likely will needed a coalition of several smaller parties to extend her power past 12 years.
In 2013, Free Democrats, Merkel’s preferred coalition partner, failed to gain the 5 percent of the vote needed to enter the Bundestag.
Merkel cast her vote at a polling station in Berlin.
“My request to everyone is that they vote, and vote for those parties that adhere 100 percent to our constitution,” said Merkel.
The SPD challenger, Martin Schulz, cast his ballot early Sunday in his home town of Wurselen in western Germany. He told reporters he hoped “as many people as possible will make use of their right to vote and strengthen a democratic future of the Federal Republic of Germany.”
Schulz has called the far-right party “the gravediggers of democracy.”
The Alternative for Germany party, founded as a protest against European bailouts for Greece, has gained popularity against Merkel’s decision in 2015 to open the country’s borders to hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers.
“Refugees have a different culture that doesn’t fit in here,” Jens Toepfer, 36, an engineer who voted for AfD, said to The Washington Post. “They should go back where they came from and fight for their freedom and reconstruction.”
Merkel’s supporters see her as a calming force.
“It doesn’t look good in the world. If you listen to that guy in America and also in the East with his atomic weapons, you get scared,” Elida Baller, 84, told The Washington Post, referring to U.S. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.