Germans vote in an election on Sunday that will mark the end of Angela Merkel's 16 years in power and the beginning of a rare period of unpredictability in Europe's top economy, with the race too close to call.
The first chancellor not to seek re-election since 1949, Merkel's decision to bow out sets the country synonymous with stability on course for change no matter who wins when the final count is in.
Western allies are watching nervously, wary of an uncertain outcome and coalition negotiations that would blunt for weeks, if not months participation on the international scene by Europe's biggest power of 83 million people.
For Merkel's centre-right CDU-CSU bloc, the stakes could hardly be higher.
Their pick for chancellor, the affable but gaffe-prone Armin Laschet, 60, has seen his popularity dwindle since he was caught chuckling during a tribute to victims of deadly floods in July.
The conservatives now face the prospect of not just losing the chancellery, but of being booted out of government altogether – unless Laschet can pull off one of his trademark last-minute comebacks.
His main rival is Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz, 63, from the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in three out of four Merkel-led governments.
Often described as capable but boring, Scholz has cast himself as a safe pair of hands and the natural Merkel heir.
The latest Civey survey on Thursday put Scholz's SPD in the lead with around 25 percent support, but the gap with the conservatives has narrowed to just two percent.
Polling in third place at around 16 percent are the centre-left Greens, who are poised to play a key role in post-election coalition haggling.
Climate change has emerged as a top concern among the 60.4 million people eligible to vote, including about 2.8 million able to do so for the first time.
The Greens' candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, 40, has warned that the next government "will be the last that can still actively influence the climate crisis."
Max Eckhert, a 26-year-old student in Berlin, said he had already cast his vote by mail.
"There's a lot at stake because we are deciding what course to set for young people like me," he told AFP.
After steering Germany safely through crises such as the 2009-2010 eurozone financial crunch, a massive influx of refugees in 2015 and the coronavirus pandemic, Merkel leaves behind an economic powerhouse in relatively robust health.
But critics say years of under investment in infrastructure and education have left the European Union's most populous country unprepared for a greener and more digital future, while social inequality has worsened.
Scholz and Baerbock have vowed more public investment to help the economy adapt, and higher taxes for top earners.
Laschet says tax hikes could stifle the pandemic rebound and has pledged to cut red tape for businesses.
Although all three candidates are pro-EU, little attention has been paid to foreign policy on the campaign trail, and none of them have Merkel's gravitas on the global stage.
During a farewell visit to her Baltic coast constituency of Stralsund this week, the still hugely popular Merkel threw Laschet a lifeline by saying he was the right choice to "secure Germany's prosperity" and security.
"Everyone knows: if Laschet loses, Merkel's legacy is lost too," said conservative newspaper Die Welt.
The unpredictable election is expected to yield a number of coalition options.
Laschet has already said that even if he comes second, he will try to cobble together an alliance with the Greens and the pro-business FDP.
The Greens have signalled they are more comfortable governing with the SPD.
Should they require a third partner for a parliamentary majority, the far-left Linke could step in but their anti-NATO stance makes them a controversial choice.
A three-way marriage between the SPD, Greens and FDP is also possible.
None of the parties will partner with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
All the main candidates will get a final chance to sway undecided voters in a joint TV appearance on Thursday evening.
Tortuous coalition talks are likely to drag on for weeks, possibly months, keeping Merkel in office a little longer.
The veteran leader has been tight-lipped about what she'll do next, but she has said she pictures herself reading and maybe taking "a little nap."
by Michelle Fitzpatrick, AFP