She led Germany through the darkest days of the euro zone crisis - and voters thanked her for it at the ballot box.

In the first national election since the crisis erupted, Angela Merkel's conservatives gained an estimated 42% of the vote.

Her popularity at home clear, she's well on the way to a third term.

And if confirmed, the conservative bloc can applaud their strongest score in over 20 years.

SOUNDBITE: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying (German):

"We'll do all we can over the next four years to make them successful for Germany. We have to wait for the election results, it's too early to say how to proceed. We'll discuss it all when we have the final results, but today we should celebrate."

What's still unclear until all the votes have been counted - who Merkel will work with.

The conservatives even have the outside chance of securing an absolute majority on their own.

That's highly unusual in German politics - it hasn't happened since 1957 - and would be a historic success for the Protestant pastor's daughter.

Leaders of the FDP - her current coalition partners - fought back tears over their worst ever result.

Exit polls put them on 4.7%, below the 5% needed to remain in parliament.

Without a late bounce, Merkel will have to enter coalition talks with the opposition Social Democrats.

She ruled in a Grand Coalition with them between 2005 and 2009.

This time they're more reluctant to join forces.

Peer Steinbrueck was their Chancellor candidate.

SOUNDBITE: Peer Steinbrueck, SPD Chancellor candidate, saying (German):

"The ball is in Mrs. Merkel's court. She's is one who has to find a majority."

Negotiations could last months.

A new government may adopt more leftist policies like a minimum wage and tax rises for top earners.

Outside Germany, some still hope the SPD could lead Merkel to soften her stance on struggling euro zone countries like Greece.

Adding to the uncertainty was the result of the new eurosceptic party, Alternative for Germany.

Exit polls showed their result at 4.9%, just a hair's breadth from entering parliament. Their leader is Bernd Lucke.

SOUNDBITE: AfD leader, Bernd Lucke, saying (German):

"We hope that in the course of the evening it will become apparent that Alternative for Germany will be represented in the next Bundestag. But we know one thing already - we have made democracy in Germany richer."

Germans - and other Europeans - can expect little change in Berlin's policies.

It was clearly Merkel's night - and Germany's direction over the next four years is in her hands.


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