German Chancellor Angela Merkel has won a fourth term in office but will have to build an uneasy coalition to form a Government after her conservatives haemorrhaged support in the face of a surge by the far-right.
- It is the first time that a far-right party will join Parliament in decades
- Ms Merkel's conservative bloc saw its biggest slump since 1949
- A coalition government will have to be formed, putting Germany on shaky ground
The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) stunned the establishment by winning 13.1 per cent of the vote, projected results showed, a result that will bring a far-right party into Parliament for the first time in more than half a century.
Ms Merkel's conservative bloc emerged as the largest parliamentary bloc but, with just 33.2 per cent of the vote, saw its support slump to the lowest since 1949 — the first time national elections were held in post-war Germany.
Her main Social Democrat (SPD) rivals also received their worst result since the 1940s — just 20.8 per cent — after nearly half of voters repudiated the two parties that have dominated Germany since World War II.
With Parliament now fragmented, Ms Merkel appears likely to cobble together a tricky three-way coalition with a pro-business group and the Greens.
As the results came in, hundreds of anti-AfD demonstrators descended on the club where the party's leaders were celebrating their third-place finish.
Shouting "All Berlin hates the AfD!", "Nazi pigs!" and other slogans, several protesters threw bottles as police kept held them back from the building in Berlin.
The protesters had been holding a demonstration against the AfD in nearby Alexanderplatz earlier in the evening.
Ms Merkel said the success of the far right was a test for Germans, and that it was important to listen to the concerns of their voters and win them back.
"Of course we had hoped for a slightly better result. But we mustn't forget that we have just completed an extraordinarily challenging legislative period, so I am happy that we reached the strategic goals of our election campaign," Ms Merkel said.
"We are the strongest party, we have the mandate to build the next government — and there cannot be a coalition government built against us."
The election was fought on the tense backdrop of surging support for far left and far right parties across Europe.
Germany in particular is coping with the arrival of more than 1 million refugees and other new migrants, with tension with Russia since Moscow's incursions into Ukraine, and with doubt about Europe's future since Britain voted to quit the EU.
'For us the grand coalition ends today': SPD
After shock election results last year, from the Brexit vote to the election of US President Donald Trump, leaders of Europe's establishment have looked to Ms Merkel to rally the liberal Western order.
But after acting as an anchor of stability in Europe and beyond, she now faces an unstable situation at home as she must now form a coalition, an arduous process that could take months.
Immediately after the release of exit polls, the deputy party leader of the Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in a "grand coalition" with Ms Merkel's conservatives for the last four years, said her party would now go into opposition.
"For us, the grand coalition ends today," Manuela Schwesig told local media.
"For us it's clear that we'll go into opposition as demanded by the voter."
Without the SPD, MS Merkel's only straightforward path to a majority in Parliament would be a three-way tie-up with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens, known as a "Jamaica" coalition because the black, yellow and green colours of the three parties match the Jamaican flag.
Such an arrangement is untested at the national level in Germany and widely seen as inherently unstable.