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Angela Merkel on track for centre-right government

Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives appear to have won enough votes in a German election to form a centre-right government with their preferred partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), exit polls showed today.

An exit poll from ZDF television put support for Merkel's conservative bloc - her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) - at 33.5 percent and showed the FDP on 14.5 percent. A poll for ARD television gave the centre-right an even clearer win.

Together, their total exceeded that of the other three main parties combined, putting Merkel on track for a second term and suggesting she will be able to end her awkward "grand coalition" with the rival Social Democrats (SPD).

As head of a centre-right government with the business-friendly FDP, Merkel would be expected to push for tax relief and extend the lifespan of German nuclear plants.

The SPD stood at 23.5 percent, according to the exit poll, their lowest score in the post-war era. The environmentalist Greens were on 10 percent and the far-left "Linke" or Left party stood at 13 percent.

Unlike voters in the United States and Japan, Germans did not seem keen, during a lacklustre campaign, for a change of leadership.

Many say they are content with the steady, low-key style of Merkel, Germany's first woman chancellor and only one to have grown up in the former communist east.

The election comes at a crucial time for Europe's largest economy, which is just emerging from its deepest recession of the post-war era.

The next government will have to get a surging budget deficit under control, and cope with rising unemployment and the threat of a credit crunch as Germany's fragile banks pare back lending.

A centre-right government, which last ruled Germany between 1982 and 1998 under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, would be expected to reduce the role of the state in the economy.

Merkel would also push, together with the FDP, for a reversal of a law ordering the closure of Germany's nuclear plants over the next decade.

In foreign policy, a centre-right coalition could be more vocal in trying to block Turkey's bid to join the European Union. Merkel favours a "privileged partnership" for Ankara that stops short of full membership.

The vote took place against a backdrop of heightened security after al Qaeda issued several videos last week threatening to punish Germany if voters backed a government that kept German troops in Afghanistan.

Germany has some 4,200 soldiers stationed there as part of a NATO-led force and all the main parties support the deployment, except the far-left "Linke", or Left party.