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Merkel, Steinbrueck, their allies and foes: who's who in Germany's election

Chancellor Angela Merkel is seeking a third term in Sunday's German election, when she faces a challenge from center-left rival Peer Steinbrueck. Leaders of Germany's smaller parties also will play a part in determining how Germany's next government looks. Here is a look at the major players.

ANGELA MERKEL, 59: Germany's chancellor since 2005, the first woman to lead the country and its first leader who grew up in communist East Germany. She also has broken with her predecessors in leading two different coalition governments: a "grand coalition" of right and left in her first term and a center-right alliance for the last four years.

Merkel has built up strong personal popularity as a consensual national leader credited with steering Germany through the 2008 financial crisis and protecting Germans from the eurozone debt crisis. That differs greatly from her negative image in much of Europe, where she's viewed as the enforcer of painful spending cuts and unpopular economic reforms.

The leader since 2000 of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, Merkel has frequently reached out to centrist voters, for example by abandoning military conscription and speeding up Germany's exit from nuclear power.

PEER STEINBRUECK, 66: Merkel's challenger from the Social Democrats, Germany's main center-left party. Steinbrueck was a well-regarded finance minister in Merkel's first term and was her co-pilot in combating the 2008 financial crisis.

Steinbrueck served in then-West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's chancellery in the late 1970s and later held a string of jobs in regional governments; he was the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, from 2002 to 2005 before losing an election there.

Steinbrueck has cultivated a plain-speaking image, once saying when he was finance minister that neighboring Switzerland faced the threat of the "cavalry" in a dispute over Germans' undeclared assets in Swiss banks. The image hasn't always had the desired effect: Shortly before the election, he drew criticism when a magazine published a photo of him holding out his middle finger in response to a question about campaign gaffes.

PHILIPP ROESLER, 40: Merkel's vice chancellor and economy minister; the leader since 2011 of the pro-market Free Democratic Party, the junior partner in the coalition government.

Roesler became leader after his party made a much-criticized start to its time in government, failing to secure promised tax cuts. He has struggled to turn around its fortunes, but an unexpectedly strong performance in a January state election allowed him to wrong-foot critics and squash talk of another leadership change. Roesler portrays his party as a bulwark against tax hikes and a softer approach to the eurozone debt crisis.

Roesler was born in Vietnam and adopted by a German couple as a baby.

JUERGEN TRITTIN, 59: The most prominent figure in the environmentalist Green party, the ally of Steinbrueck's Social Democrats. Environment minister from 1998-2005 under then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, when Germany set in motion plans to phase out nuclear power.

Trittin joined the Greens in 1980, the year the party was founded. He's a left-leaning favorite with activists, who chose him alongside centrist Katrin Goering-Eckardt to lead this year's election campaign. He is a co-leader of the Greens' parliamentary group.

GREGOR GYSI, 65: Germany's best-known ex-communist. One of the main movers behind the 2005 creation of the Left Party, a fusion of former East German communists and other hard-line leftists that has benefited from discontent over the past decade's welfare and labor-market reforms.

The charismatic Gysi says his party is the only one that stands out from the "consensus sauce" of German politics, but also has a strong pragmatic streak — he took his ex-communists into Berlin's regional government a decade ago and briefly served as economy minister there. However, his party, which is strongest in formerly communist eastern Germany, has thrived nationally on uncompromising opposition and looks unlikely to enter any federal government.