German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative alliance has won a fourth term in power, election exit polls suggest, but will face a more volatile parliament after the far-right made historic gains.
Merkel's bloc of the Christian Democratic Party and the Bavarian-only Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) won between 32.5 percent and 33.5 percent of the vote in the September 24 national 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, garnered between 20 percent 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 percent to 13.5 percent support.
The rise of the AfD comes after shock election results last year, from Britain's vote to leave the European Union to the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, where nationalist and anti-immigrant parties made major gains.
Europe's establishment had hoped Merkel would restore liberal order but the results could force her to rein in plans to re-shape Europe together with France's Emmanuel Macron.
"Of course we had hoped for a slightly better result," Merkel said after her conservative bloc slumped in the polls from 41.5 percent at the last election in 2013.
But the pastor's daughter who grew up in communist East Germany was quick to add: "We are the strongest party, we have the mandate to build the next government -- and there cannot be a coalition government built against us."
AfD's performance means that the anti-immigrant party is on track to have a seat at the Bundestag for the first time ever.
It would also be the first time in 60 years that a far-right party would 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.
With a fractured parliament of six parties, the process of forming a coalition government could take months.
Addressing her supporters, she said that she would listen to the "anxieties" of voters of 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