Exit polls in Germany showed Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives won the most votes in a parliamentary election Sunday, putting her on track for a third term in office.
But a poor showing by Ms. Merkel's coalition partners means the popular leader will likely be forced to govern with her main center-left rivals.
Exit polls for ARD and ZDF television showed the chancellor's conservative bloc - the Christian Democratic Union and Bavarian Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) - at 42 percent, their strongest showing since 1990.
Center-left challenger Peer Steinbrueck's Social Democrats trailed well behind with up to 26.5 percent.
But the polls put Ms. Merkel's coalition partners, the pro-business Free Democrats, at 4.7 percent - just below the minimum five percent threshold to keep their seats in parliament. The Alternative for Germany - a new party calling for an "orderly breakup" of the 17-member eurozone - held at 4.9 percent, also uncertain of winning seats.
If the current coalition fails to win a parliamentary majority, the likeliest outcome is a switch to a Merkel-led partnership with the Social Democrats. The two are traditional rivals, but governed Germany together in Merkel's first term after an inconclusive 2005 election.
"I think it will be relatively tight because Peer Steinbrueck caught up in the end. My tip is on the grand coalition."
Nearly 62 million Germans are eligible to elect the lower house of parliament, which in turn chooses the chancellor.
If the exit polls hold, Ms. Merkel looks set to become one of postwar Germany's longest-serving political leaders.
The election is being closely watched across the continent. In southern Europe - and especially, Greece - Germany continues to be vilified as the country that has forced austerity on the European Union, and many single out Chancellor Merkel.