BERLIN — From the Baltic Sea to the Alps, German voters cast ballots Sunday in an election that is expected to deliver a fourth term to Chancellor Angela Merkel even as the country prepares for a far-right presence in its parliament for the first time in over half a century.
The national vote — the first since the country welcomed more than a million asylum seekers amid the European refugee crisis — comes following a campaign in which Merkel emphasized the country’s economic prosperity and stability at a time of upheaval elsewhere.
The strategy seems to have worked, with polls uniformly showing Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) well ahead of its main challenger, the center-left Social Democrats (SDP).
Her backers on Sunday said they saw the chancellor as a force for much-needed calm.
“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,” said Elida Baller, 84, referring to President Trump and Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader.
In surveys, Merkel’s party takes around 35 percent of the vote, while the SPD — Merkel’s coalition partner for the past four years — is mired in the low 20s. Projected results are expected just after 6 p.m. locally, or noon EDT.
The top two party positions have remained unchanged in German elections since Merkel first swept to victory in 2005, launching her 12-year run as chancellor.
But third place could offer a dramatic departure from the past 56 years of German postwar history, with the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) positioned to gain more support than many Germans had thought possible in a country where the memory of extreme right-wing government is a source of profound national shame.
Polls show the anti-immigration, anti-Islam AfD winning anywhere from 10 to 13 percent of the vote, more than double its performance four years ago. That year, the then-fledgling party barely missed the five-percent cutoff for making it into the Bundestag, the German parliament.
The party was founded as a protest against European bailouts for Greece. But its popularity has surged on the back of resistance to Merkel’s decision in 2015 to open the country’s borders to hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers fleeing war, oppression and extreme poverty.
Jens Töpfer, 36, an engineer who cast one of his two ballots Sunday for the AfD, said he is afraid that Germany is being overrun by refugees. And that could bring dire consequences for the next generation, he said, pointing to his two-year-old son.
“Refugees have a different culture that doesn’t fit in here,” he said. “They should go back where they came from and fight for their freedom and reconstruction.”
One featured swimsuit-clad women at the beach along with the phrase “Burqas? We prefer bikinis.” Another showed the belly of a pregnant white woman and the tagline “New Germans? We’ll make our own” — a counterpoint to those arguing that the refugees will help an aging Germany restock its young workforce.
But at a time when the far-right has roiled political establishments across the Western world, its appeal has appeared to be limited in Germany. Its support fell in polls earlier this year as the refugee crisis receded from view, though it has ticked up again in recent weeks.
The other main parties, meanwhile, have been united in speaking out against the AfD and vowing not to cooperate with the group. In the campaign’s final days, a close Merkel ally said voters should stay home rather than support the AfD. Merkel’s Social Democratic challenger, Martin Schulz, called the far-right party “the gravediggers of democracy.”
Some voters on Sunday said they were motivated to try to block the AfD’s rise. Abdessamad Mendoui, a 75-year-old who immigrated to Germany 55 years ago from Morocco, walked slowly to his polling place in the western city of Frankfurt on Sunday. He said his health has not been good, and that he is not typically a political person. But he said he felt obligated to vote.
“We have to counter the right-wing people,” he said.
Mendoui cast his ballot for the SPD, which as late as this spring was expected to offer Merkel a vigorous challenge as she sought to extend her reign to 16 years — a mark that would tie the German postwar record, now held by Helmut Kohl.
But the SPD’s campaign, which party leader Schulz built on making Germany a more socially just and equitable nation, never caught fire, and Merkel faced little serious resistance.
She will, however, likely have to conduct delicate negotiations to form a new government. Her party has governed with the SPD for eight of the past 12 years. Another grand coalition is possible this time around, as well.
But some top SPD leaders are resistant, believing that pairing up with Merkel and the CDU has ruined their party’s ability to present voters with a clear alternative.
Absent a grand coalition, Merkel’s choices may be limited. Her preference is believed to be a partnership with the Free Democrats, a pro-business party that missed winning parliamentary seats in the last election but is expected to return after Sunday’s vote.
But those two may not have enough seats on their own to form a majority, and could be forced to turn to the Green Party for help in what would be known as a “Jamaica coalition” — a reference to the parties’ colors, which match the Caribbean nation’s flag.
A three-party government would be new for modern Germany, and could limit Merkel’s room to maneuver as she attempts to bridge critical divides.
But the parties also agree on much, part of the strikingly solid establishment consensus that Merkel has forged in her 12 years as chancellor.
It’s a consensus that has spawned a backlash among voters who want some sort of alternative.
In Brandenburg an der Havel, a small town west of Berlin, voters offered starkly different visions for the new government Sunday. Pervasive, however, was a feeling of skepticism that the election would fundamentally reshape the country’s political landscape.
“Every four years we can vote for the person who drives the train, but we can’t change the direction of the train,” said Hubert Lützelberger, 67, a former accountant who cast one of his votes for Die Linke, the far-left party that was expected to vie with the AfD for third place.
In the northeast Berlin district of Weissensee, many said on Sunday that they had cast ballots on the fragmented left of the political spectrum.
Although they chose different parties, they all agreed on their opposition to the AfD — and their concern that the far-right could be back in Germany’s parliament.
“They should never gain access to the Bundestag. The Holocaust happened, and Germans were guilty of that,” said Gerhard Weisseberg.
The tensions over the far-right’s rise, which defined the last weeks of campaigning, could also be felt at the primary school where Weissensee residents voted.
“I hope you didn’t vote for the AfD?” Social Democratic voter Marlen Jauhke shouted at one point across the school courtyard to a fellow voter.
There was no reply.
Isaac Stanley Becker and Alexandra Rojkov in Brandenburg an der Havel, Rick Noack and Luisa Beck in Berlin, and Souad Mekhennet in Frankfurt contributed to this report.