BERLIN -- Chancellor Angela Merkel scored a stunning personal triumph in Germany's national elections on Sunday, as voters handed her a clear validation of her leadership -- and an all-but-certain third term -- by giving her conservative party its best showing in 20 years, exit polls indicated.
Projections from both main German television networks showed Ms. Merkel's Christian Democrats, together with their sister party in Bavaria, tantalizingly close to an absolute majority, something no chancellor has achieved since Konrad Adenauer in 1957. Still, the projections indicated that Ms. Merkel would probably fall two or three seats short of that, and a poor showing for her coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats, meant that the chancellor would probably have to build a new coalition.
That could result in more paralysis for Europe as German leaders engage in weeks of horse-trading to form what is likely to be a grand coalition with Ms. Merkel's main opponents on the left, the Social Democrats, who did not perform as well as they had hoped Sunday and who may prove reluctant partners for fear of losing further luster in a government dominated by Ms. Merkel.
President François Hollande of France congratulated the chancellor on "success in the federal election" and invited her to Paris as soon as possible -- a clear indication of the eagerness with which Germany's partners awaited the election result.
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who with Ms. Merkel has guided Germany and thus Europe through the euro crisis, was swift to go on television and assure European partners that the government in Berlin would continue to play a leading role. But what no one knows is exactly how much fiscal and political unity a new Merkel government would want.
For the moment, however, the strong showing left the chancellor and her party exuberant. Rarely has Ms. Merkel looked as buoyant as she did when she appeared onstage at her party headquarters after projections were announced. Her supporters wildly cheered "Angie! Angie!" and applauded solidly for two minutes, before she thanked party workers, particularly young volunteers, her campaign manager, aides in the chancellery and -- most unusually -- her husband, Joachim Sauer, a quantum chemist who generally shuns the limelight. He stood to the side of the stage, quietly acknowledging the jubilation of his wife's supporters.
"It was a super result," Ms. Merkel said. "It is too early to say what we will do. We will discuss it tomorrow when we know the final result, but we can already celebrate tonight. Because we were great!"
Projections tallied by the ARD public network and based on exit polls, which in Germany have previously proved exceptionally accurate, showed Ms. Merkel's Christian Democrats winning more than 42 percent of the vote, a gain of about 8 percentage points from the previous election, followed by the Social Democrats with nearly 26 percent. An exultant Ursula von der Leyen, the employment minister, told German television, "this is our best result in 20 years."
The biggest surprise of the evening was the upstart, anti-euro Alternative for Germany party, which exit polls showed just shy of the 5 percent needed to enter into the lower house of Parliament. A classic protest party, it appeared to have drawn enough support from both the chancellor's conservatives and the Free Democrats, possibly costing the latter their place in Parliament.
Projections from the exit polls showed the Free Democrats falling just short of the 5 percent hurdle, meaning they would be ousted from the lower house for the first time in postwar Germany, a crushing loss after having won nearly 15 percent four years ago.
Mr. Schäuble, who with Ms. Merkel has guided Germany and to a large extent Europe through the euro crisis, told German television that Europe had no need to worry about Germany shirking its responsibility in the continent's affairs.
"We will continue to play our part reliably," he said, praising the bonds to a united Europe as the best thing his country has had in centuries.
Asked whether he would remain finance minister, Mr. Schäuble demurred, noting that many discussions lie ahead.
Nearly 62 million eligible voters were called upon to determine the makeup of the next German Parliament. The race was closely watched abroad, given that Germany's leadership role in Europe will influence the continent's ability to shake its debt crisis and address the problems of chronic unemployment and sluggish growth. The next government in Berlin will also play a crucial role in completing the ambitious trade agreement between the European Union and the United States.
On Saturday, Ms. Merkel wound up her campaign of countless interviews and almost 60 rallies nationwide since mid-August in her home district around Stralsund, a pretty medieval port on the Baltic Sea.
Feisty and upbeat as she delivered her usual stump speech, the 59-year-old chancellor urged the crowd to vote not only for her as chancellor, but also to cast their second vote, which is for parties, in support of her Christian Democrats. .
"By putting your cross there, you are doing something which will enable me to continue as your chancellor, which I really want to do," she told a seafront crowd of hundreds.
"Tomorrow is your day," she said, adding her voice to the many urging all eligible Germans to cast ballots, reflecting the emphasis on duty, as well as rights, in this post-Nazi, post-Communist democracy.
Roughly a third of all voters described themselves as undecided just days before the election, adding to the uncertainty.
"Germany has had four good years," Ms. Merkel said on Saturday, looking back on her second term, dominated by a robust economy and low unemployment, currently at 6.8 percent. "When we look around in Europe, we know that is anything but automatic."
The chancellor's main challenger, Peer Steinbrück, 66, who was finance minister in her government from 2005-2009, has sought to cast her carefully weighed decision-making as plodding and her government with the Free Democrats as crippled by infighting.
"In 28 hours you can get rid of them, you can get rid of the most backward-looking, incapable, loud-mouthed German government since reunification," Mr. Steinbrück told a crowd of several thousand on Saturday in Frankfurt, the country's financial capital and home to the European Central Bank. He has campaigned on closing the widening gap between Germany's rich and poor by raising taxes on top earners and introducing a minimum wage.
The Social Democrats' preferred partners had been the Greens, but exit polls showed them also suffering losses to reach only about 8 percent support. That would mean that only by including the far-left Left party, formed in 2005 from the former East German Communist Party and western leftists who broke with the Social Democrats, would a left-leaning coalition be possible. Both center-left parties have repeatedly rejected a coalition with the Left, charging the party remains fractured by infighting and differences over policy.
Should the chancellor seek a coalition with the Social Democrats, the negotiations are sure to be difficult and drawn out. Negotiations between the two parties took until the end of November in 2005, in forming her government that led until 2009.
Alison Smale contributed reporting from Stralsund, Germany.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.