THE fight to succeed popular, long-serving chancellor Angela Merkel could barely be tighter as Germans vote in parliamentary elections.
While the streets of Berlin hosted the annual marathon, the biggest race was taking place across the country.
The three candidates vying to succeed the chancellor voted in warm late-summer sunshine, as final polls put Mrs Merkel’s conservatives in second place.
At stake is the leadership of Europe’s most powerful economy.
More than 60 million Germans over 18 are eligible to vote and long queues were reported outside polling stations in Berlin.
Voting ends at 18:00 (17:00 BST) and the first exit polls in this unpredictable election come out immediately.
The race looked over until the outgoing chancellor entered the fray in support of the conservative candidate, her career at the top of German politics now weeks from coming to an end.
“It really matters who’s in power,” she warned voters repeatedly in the 48 hours before the vote. Her message was that Germany needed stability and its youth needed a future – and Armin Laschet was the man to provide it.
All bets are off
There are plenty of uncertainties about this election. In the run-up, more than a third of voters were still unsure who to vote for, although a record number have already posted their votes in.
Calling on all Germans to vote, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: “Whoever takes part will be heard, whoever does not vote lets others decide for them.”
For months the opinion polls have swayed this way and that. The conservative CDU and its Bavarian sister party led initially, and at one point the Greens went in front, but then came a surge for the Social Democrats under Olaf Scholz.
Of the three candidates competing for the role of chancellor, it is Mr Scholz who has galvanised voters most. As Mrs Merkel’s deputy it has been easier for him than for his conservative rival to be seen as the continuity candidate.
But their candidate for the top job, Annalena Baerbock, has lost support over the summer, despite catastrophic floods that left at least 190 people dead and left a trail of destruction in two of the most populous states.
All three candidates for chancellor voted during the morning, and there was some concern when Mr Laschet folded his ballot paper wrongly, displaying his choice to photographers.
Not over till it’s over
Even if a clear winner emerges on Sunday evening, Germans will not know the make-up of their government for some time.
The victorious party still needs to form a coalition and there seems little chance of a repeat of the two-party grand coalition currently in charge.
That is why Germans are talking about traffic-light, Jamaica or Kenya coalitions, reflecting the different colour schemes of the parties potentially involved.