But the complexion of that coalition is still much in doubt. A small margin could determine whether Germany's next government is further to the right, stays on the present course, or even shifts to the left. And if neither of the main parties can form a coalition, Germans will have to go through the whole process again before the year is out.
The most confidently forecast result is the one predicted before Angel Merkel's CDU/CSU alliance surged ahead of Gerhard Schröder's Social Demo-crats in August. This would see Ms Merkel heading a coalition of her own centre-right grouping and the free-market FDP, led by the debonair Guido Westerwelle. The FDP price would be a couple of ministries, probably including the foreign ministry.
But the poll showing Germans have fallen out of love with the idea of change is bad news for Ms Merkel, whose campaign slogans all harp on that theme. Ms Merkel herself cites her positive personal experience of change - when the Berlin Wall collapsed - to argue that change is nothing to be frightened of.
Until this week, it seemed Germans agreed. There was a widely shared feeling that their country had become mediocre; Ms Merkel seemed to promise an adventure that would make Germany noticed again for the best of reasons, economic dynamism, technical excellence and a chance of success for all. More than 50 per cent of those polled regularly said they supported change. That figure is now below 45, with 51 per cent who said they did not.
This could open the way for Mr Schröder's red-green coalition to return to office and continue where it left off after the defeat in regional elections in May.
The polls show that neither major party has a chance of an overall majority. Precisely what sort of coalition will emerge could depend on a small number of votes. Mr Schröder's victory three years ago came down to 6,000, from an electorate of 62 million and a turnout of 77 per cent.
Once a coalition is in prospect, Germany's system of proportional representation comes into play, with the second vote - for a party, rather than a constituency MP - potentially making a big difference. It was noticeable how the smaller parties - the FDP, the Greens and the new Left party - suddenly switched tack 10 days ago and started appealing for " second votes", much to the dismay of the two bigger parties, who dislike vote-splitting.
As the polls stand, neither Ms Merkel's CDU/CSU nor Mr Schröder's SPD have enough votes to give them power in coalition with their traditional partners, the FDP for Ms Merkel and the Greens for the SPD.
Just a couple of percentage points more or fewer for any of these four parties could make the difference between governing or not.
If neither coalition commands a majority, the bigger parties will have to decide whether to go into coalition with each other, the so-called " grand coalition". Mr Schröder would step down rather than become the junior partner. Or one of the bigger parties could cobble together a three-party coalition, with the instability and compromise that could produce.
The most talked-about groupings are a so-called "traffic light" coalition - red, yellow and green - with the SPD, the FDP and the Greens, or a red-red-green coalition, with Mr Schröd-er's outgoing coalition teaming up with the new Left party. All parties concerned reject such a possibility.
A red-red-green coalition would push the government to the left, the opposite of most predictions when the election was called. Some believe that a government of national unity, a grand coalition, could allow the continuation of tough, but needed reforms, yet others see it as a recipe for squabbling and stagnation.
What's at stake as Germany goes to polls
A coalition of the CDU with its sister party the CSU and the liberal FDP would mean a shift away from the traditional social democrat model towards the free market, and a far simpler tax system with a uniform, 'flat' tax rate is a distinct possibility.
Another SPD/Green coalition with Schröder and Joschka Fischer as Foreign Minister would likely serve up more of the same domestically. But a renewed mandate might allow sped-up reforms to benefits and health care systems.
A middle-of-the-road result in which each party would have to decide which commitments to compromise on. It could be good to have broad consensus for measured economic reform. But it could also mean incessant bickering and stagnation
A coalition with Merkel at its head is bad news for Ankara's quest for EU membership. She wants a "privileged partnership" instead. French presidential wannabe Nicholas Sarkozy will be delighted if Germany turns to the right, as he intends to make France follow suit.
Whether he is re-elected to an unchanged coalition or is forced to accommodate the harder left, Schröder's optimistic attitude towards Europe - and in particular his passionate support of Turkey's accession to the EU - is very unlikely to change.
There is no chance Mr Schröder would stay as SPD leader in a CDU/CSU coalition. EU politics will also depend on who will be foreign minister. Germany's contribution to the EU budget, which CDU/CSU criticise, will certainly be on the agenda
A Merkel win may see a blurring in American eyes between the "old" and "new" Europe distinctions but it would change little in terms of Germany's foreign policy, although Merkel will want to rebuild links with the Bush administration.
The Chancellor, with his fearsome opposition to the Iraq war, is the embodiment of Donald Rumsfeld's "old Europe". Knowing that the majority of voters are against America's aggressive foreign policy, Schröder would stick to his colder approach to Washington.
Merkel will make it her mission to rebuild links with the US. Nonetheless policies on Iraq, climate change and Iran should stay the same. Ms Merkel has already indicated that a permanent seat on the UN Security Council will not be her priority.Reuse content