Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative alliance has finished first in Germany's elections, exit polls suggest, putting her in a position to lead the country for a fourth term.
Merkel’s bloc of the Christian Democratic Party and the Bavarian-only Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) won between 32.5 and 33.5 percent of the vote in the September 24 elections, according to polls conducted for public television channels ARD and ZDF.
If confirmed, the numbers are the worst result for the CDU/CSU alliance under Merkel's 12-year leadership.
The polls indicated that the bloc’s outgoing coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD) led by Martin Schulz, gained between 20 and 21 percent support -- a post-World War II low.
They also suggested that the far-right, populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) emerged as Germany's third-strongest party with 13 to 13.5 percent support.
AfD's performance means that the anti-immigrant party is on track to have a seat in the Bundestag for the first time.
It would also be the first time in 60 years that a far-right party is expected to win representation in the chamber, but all other German parties have ruled out working with the AfD.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the party's headquarters in Berlin to protest AfD’s entry into parliament. Similar protests were held in other cities, including Cologne and Frankfurt.
Merkel, a pastor's daughter who grew up in communist East Germany, will now try to form a coalition government, a process that could take months.
Addressing her supporters, she said she had hoped for a "better result" and that she would listen to the "anxieties" of Germans who voted for the AfD in order to win them back.
Schulz said the SPD would go into opposition, putting an end to the current coalition with Merkel’s alliance.
"It's a difficult and bitter day for Social Democrats in Germany," Schulz told supporters. "We haven't reached our objective."
The AfD has grown in popularity in the midst of an influx of around 1 million mostly Muslim migrants and refugees.
The Greens, the Free Democratic Party, and the Left Party were also poised to pass the 5-percent hurdle to enter the Bundestag.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, and the BBC