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Germans go to the polls; Merkel the likely winner

LONDON — Germans began heading to the polls Sunday morning in an election that will probably see their popular chancellor, Angela Merkel, voted in for a third term but forced to share power in government with one of the runner-up parties.

The balloting caps a race in which Merkel and her rivals traded barbs over a possible national minimum wage, higher taxes for the rich and Germany’s role in bailing out debt-ridden European countries.

But discussion of those issues was often drowned out by minor campaign controversies and ignored by residents generally satisfied with the status quo. Germany’s economy, Europe’s largest, continues to outperform almost all its neighbors’ despite the region’s debt crisis, and unemployment in Germany is low.

Merkel, 59, Germany’s first female leader, has governed the country since 2005 and enjoys extremely high approval ratings. But her party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, is less popular than she is. It is expected to win the most seats in the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, but not an outright majority, which will oblige Merkel to look for one or more coalition partners.

Although she would prefer to keep on governing with her current coalition partner, the pro-market Free Democrats, that party has plummeted in the polls since the last election four years ago and could even be shut out of the Bundestag altogether.

Instead, she could be forced into a rerun of her first term, which saw the CDU enter a marriage of convenience with its traditional rival, the left-of-center Social Democrats. Many voters say they would like to see such a “grand coalition.”

Another potential partner, the left-leaning Green Party, has evolved from a purely environmental group into a mainstream political force but is unlikely to agree to join the CDU in government.

A wild card is Alternative for Germany, a new group dedicated solely to the idea that Berlin should stop bailing out the Eurozone’s weaker countries and kick them out of the currency union altogether. In recent polls, the party has inched closer to reaching the 5% threshold required to take a seat in the Bundestag, but the CDU has ruled out governing with Alternative for Germany.

Results from exit polls will begin to emerge in the early evening, but after the votes are all counted, it could take weeks for the political parties to work out which of them will form the new government.

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