Image copyright EPA Image caption The election results will be announced on Sunday night
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union party are in danger of losing seats in parliament, exit polls suggest.
The poll, carried out for media organisations, put the centre-left Social Democrats in first place with 33% of the vote.
It means Mrs Merkel’s political arch-rivals, the Social Democrats, have done better than expected.
The conservative CSU is set to win around 30% of the vote, and Mr Merkel’s Greens party 15%, with the CDU coming in third with 12%.
‘Invariably better news’
Winning a seat in the federal parliament is the SPD’s goal at the elections, because Angela Merkel’s first term ended in 2017.
The party had been in talks with the centre-left Social Democrats and the Greens on forming a government after several inconclusive votes.
But that deal fell apart, amid disagreements over issues like social security and worker rights.
That left the centre-left party out of power for the first time since 2013.
In a blog post, party chairman Martin Schulz wrote that “although difficult, inevitably better news” had arrived, and the Social Democrats were now in a “very good position”.
However, he said the result would require adjustments as voters had delivered a “wave” vote for the far-left Die Linke and the pro-business Free Democrats.
Image copyright AP Image caption Voters are flocking to the polls in Germany
Both parties have said they would be unlikely to join another government with Mrs Merkel, meaning her Christian Democrats may have to build a coalition with either the SPD or the Social Democrats.
The SPD’s widely expected victory represented a good start, says BBC Germany correspondent Peter de Boer, but of course it’s not guaranteed.
Expectations are low, he points out, meaning that “seats may not be yet won”, meaning the result could go the other way, although this was not likely, he said.
In 2007, the SPD and the CDU agreed to tie up, but their election strategy was different. Then the SPD was campaigning for change while the CDU’s was to maintain power.
This time round, it appears the CDU, after nine years in power, is getting the message that change is desirable.
At a meeting on Friday, the head of the party, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, said the Social Democrats had to “call a high vote-guard”, because they had “done a lot”.
Image copyright EPA Image caption Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats are set to get a shaky third place
At a rally on Saturday, she said voters would “have to look at us”.
“Either we lose our dignity as an SPD, or we not only look to Germany, but we say hello to Europe and other friendly countries like Portugal.”
The head of the Free Democrats, Alice Weidel, echoed her comments and said: “This is a chancellor who has lost touch with her people”.
Calls for a poll
In the late-night poll for the Bild am Sonntag newspaper, Mrs Merkel’s CDU was set to get around 30% of the vote, less than the SPD and the Greens.
Merkel ally Oliver Lang was accused of complacency
Negotiations between the CDU and the SPD have failed because the latter wanted Mrs Merkel to step down as chancellor before a coalition government formed, so she could instead enter a caretaker role until a new government could be formed.
Mrs Merkel rejected the idea, and recently referred to it as an “irresponsible” idea, telling German broadcaster ZDF that she was “definitely not on the way out”.
Elections for the second half of Germany’s term are due on 4 September.