BERLIN, Sept 24 (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives beat their rivals on Sunday to win her a fourth term in an election that will also bring a far-right party into Germany's parliament for the first time in more than half a century, exit polls showed.
After shock election results last year, from Britain's vote to leave the European Union to the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, many look to Merkel to rally a bruised liberal Western order, tasking her with leading a post-Brexit Europe.
She must now form a coalition government - an arduous process that could take months as all potential partners are unsure whether they really want to share power with her.
Merkel's conservative bloc won 32.5 percent of the vote, making them the largest parliamentary group, an exit poll for broadcaster ARD indicated. However, that was down from 41.5 percent in the last election, in 2013.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel through the years
German Chancellor Angela Merkel through the years
German Environment Minister Angela Merkel smiles prior to a environmental ministers conference at Albrechtsburg castle in Dresden, March 23. Ministers from 21 countries will attend the annual conference to discuss environmental issues.
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Christian Democratic German Defence Minister Volker Ruehe (R) and Environment Minister Angela Merkel smile prior a cabinet meeting at the chancellery in Bonn, August 11. The cabinet is expected to discuss Merkels report about the security of nuclear power plants in Germany.
(Reuters Photographer / Reuters)
Angela MERKEL , CDU , Minister for the Environment , during a cabinet meeting in April 1994
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Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel holds a news conference at the end of a European Union leaders summit in Brussels March 15, 2013. European leaders met in Brussels for a second day of summit talks on Friday, to discuss relations with Russia and the situation in Syria, as well as economic policies.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel poses for photographs after the recording of her annual New Year's speech at the Chancellery in Berlin December 30, 2013.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a reception with carols singers (Sternsinger) at the Chancellery in Berlin, January 7, 2014. Merkel has fractured her pelvis in a cross-country skiing accident in Switzerland over the Christmas holidays and is walking with the help of crutches, forcing her to call off some foreign visits and official appointments her spokesman said on Monday.
Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel leaves a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium, December 18, 2015.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President of Honduras Juan Orlando Hernandez shake hands after a joint press conference following talks at the Chancellery in Berlin on October 27, 2015. The two leaders are meeting for conversations about the bilateral relations, developmental cooperation and the situation in the region.
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel wears Google Glass eyewear as she visits a booth of Nokia where students developed an interactive communication software to repair mobile communications equipment abroad during a Girls Day career event at the Chancellery in Berlin April 27, 2016. Girls Day seeks to attract female pupils to careers in IT, technological and natural science sectors of the German industry.
Merkel, Angela - Politician, CDU, Germany, Federal Minister for the Environment, Germany - ironing wrapping paper - 1994
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Angela Merkel, German chancellor, is seen arriving at a G-8 meeting in St-Petersburg, Russia, Sunday, July 16, 2006. Italy and the U.K. sent warships to the Eastern Mediterranean as a fifth day of fighting in the region prompted most of the Group of Eight countries to make plans for evacuating their citizens from Lebanon and Israel.
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Angela MERKEL (CDU), federal chancellor.
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during an official welcoming ceremony at the Chancellery in Berlin 05 June 2007. Abe was in Berlin for bilateral takes with his German counterpart prior to the start of the G8 summit the following day.
(CLEMENS BILAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Hohen-Luckow, GERMANY: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President George W. Bush pose with children of residents upon his arrival at Hohen Luckow Estate, northeastern Germany, 06 June 2007 prior their dinner on the first day of the summit of the Group of Eight most industrialized nations at the Baltic Coast hotel in the northern resort of Heiligendamm.
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures as she delivers a speech at a Christian Democratic Union meeting in Frankfurt 04 September 2007, outlining the party's basic principles.
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) talks to geishas during her visit in Kyoto, 31 August 2007. Merkel is on a three-day official visit to Japan.
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US President George W. Bush (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) shake hands after a joint press conference at the guesthouse of the Federal Republic, the Meseberg Palace, in Meseberg north of Berlin, Germany on June 11, 2008. President Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met for talks which were dominated by the Iranian nuclear programme, climate protection and transatlantic trade. Germany is the second stop on a farewell tour of Europe before Bush leaves office in January 2009.
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for the weekly German government cabinet meeting on August 13, 2008 in Berlin, Germany. High on the morning's agenda was the extension of the German military mission in Sudan. The German Bundeswehr has approximately 40 soldiers in Sudan as part of the Untied Nations UNMIS peacekeeping force.
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Ronald Pofalla (R), General Secretary of the CDU smile during their election campaign rally at the central station Koblenz during their journey in the historic 'Rheingold' train on September 15, 2009 in Koblenz, Germany. German Chancellor Merkel tours during her election campaign rally through six German cities in the historic train. The 17th German federal election is scheduled for September 27, 2009 and will be held to elect the members of the Bundestag, the federal parliament of Germany.
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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev arrives for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at Meseberg Palace, the government's official residence, in the eastern German town of Meseberg on June 4, 2010. Medvedev is in Germany for two days of what the German government called 'informal' discussions set to be dominated by Iran's nuclear program and the Middle East.
(JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds a speech during the ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the German Federal Police (BKA) in Wiesbaden, August 18, 2011.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures as she takes questions from the audience on foreign policy as the Koerber foundation marked the 50th anniversary of the Bergedorfer forum, a German think-tank in Berlin September 9, 2011.
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French President Francois Hollande (L) greets German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) prior to their meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France on November 25, 2015.
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo pay their respects to the victims of the November 13 Paris attacks on November 25, 2015, on the Place de la Republic in Paris, where they each left a white rose. Hollande, just off the plane from Washington, met German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seeking support for his faltering effort to forge a coalition to fight Islamic State jihadists. Hollande is expected to look to Merkel to try to ease tensions between Russia and Turkey -- two potential components of the anti-IS alliance -- which fell out over the downing of a Russian warplane at the Turkish-Syrian border. Hollande is on a whirlwind diplomatic tour spurred by the November 13 attacks on Paris that left 130 dead and 350 injured.
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US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrive for a press conference after their bilateral talks at the Herrenhausen Palace in Hanover, on April 24, 2016. Obama is in Germany on the last leg of his tour of Europe and the Gulf, planning to underscore close ties with Chancellor Angela Merkel and make the case for a controversial transatlantic free trade agreement
(TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor and leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, reacts during a news conference at the CDU headquarters in Berlin, Germany, on Monday, March 14, 2016. Merkel plans to stay the course and pursue her migration policy much as before even as she acknowledged that the refugee crisis hurt her party in three state elections.
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) receives a honorary doctorate degree from Nanjing University's president Chen Jun at University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, China, June 12, 2016.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) talks with Jerome Boateng (R) during the annual open-house day at the Chancellery on August 28, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. Merkel has seen her popularity ratings decline as Germany grapples with the integration of up to one million refugees and migrants who arrived in Germany thanks to Merkel's liberal policy. Many Germans feel unsettled by so many newcomers and only a small portion of those granted asylum have found jobs. Germany faces federal elections next year.
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures during her summer interview with journalists of German public tv chain ARD on August 28, 2016 in Berlin.
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German Chancellor and leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party CDU Angela Merkel reacts after her speech at the CDU party convention in Essen, Germany, December 6, 2016.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and German Foreign Minister Fank-Walter Steinmeier walk towards the Christmas market in Berlin, Germany, December 20, 2016, one day after a truck ploughed into a crowded Christmas market in the German capital.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj as they and other heads of delegations watch traditional nomadic Naadam festival performance during the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit just outside Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, July 15, 2016.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Sarah Philips during a reception of German carnival societies at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, January 23, 2017.
Pupils make selfies as German Chancellor Angela Merkel signs autographs as she visits the French secondary school Lycee Francais in Berlin, Germany, May 3, 2016.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu during a welcome ceremony at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, January 22, 2016.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at a combat diver during her visit to Naval Base Command in Kiel, Germany, January 19, 2016.
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Support for their closest rivals, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) which are currently junior partners in a so-called "grand coalition" with Merkel, slumped to 20.0 percent - a new post-war low. The SPD ruled out a re-run of that tie-up.
The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) stunned the establishment by finishing third and entering parliament for the first time with 13.5 percent of the vote.
Merkel, Europe's longest-serving leader, joins the late Helmut Kohl, her mentor who reunified Germany, and Konrad Adenauer, who led Germany's rebirth after World War Two, as the only post-war chancellors to win four national elections.
SPD deputy leader Manuela Schwesig said her party would now go into opposition. That would rule out a re-run of Merkel's existing alliance with the SPD.
An alternative coalition for Merkel would be a three-way tie-up with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the ecologist Greens. That is a combination as yet untested at national level and known as the "Jamaica" option because the three parties' colors are those of the black-gold-green Jamaica national flag.
Both the FDP and the environmentalist Greens have played down the prospect of a Jamaica coalition, but as they have been out of government for four and 12 years respectively, they may be lured into an alliance by the prospect of power.
Whatever the make-up of her coalition, Merkel, 63, faces four years of government in a fragmented parliament after the return of the FDP - unrepresented at national level for the last four years - and the arrival of the AfD.
Founded in 2013 by an anti-euro group of academics, the AfD has morphed into an anti-immigration party that has profited from Merkel's 2015 decision to leave German borders open to over 1 million migrants, most of them fleeing war in the Middle East.
The party's entry into the national parliament heralds the beginning of a new era in German politics that will see more robust debate and a departure from the steady, consensus-based approach that has marked the post-war period.
The other parties elected to the Bundestag all refuse to work with the AfD, which says it will press for Merkel to be "severely punished" for opening the door to refugees and migrants.
After the AfD hurt her conservatives in regional elections last year, Merkel, a pastor's daughter who grew up in Communist East Germany, wondered if she should run for re-election.
But with the migrant issue under control this year, she threw herself into a punishing campaign schedule, presenting herself as an anchor of stability in an uncertain world.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Keith Weir)