BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives are in a dead-heat with the rival Social Democrats (SPD) for first place in an election in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, exit polls showed on Sunday.
German TV network ARD showed Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) on 30.5 percent and the SPD on 29.5 percent based on the first exit polls after the voting stations closed at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT). The result would give both parties 22 seats in the 69-seat assembly.
The unclear outcome could lead to many weeks of negotiations to find a new government, with an unusually large number of coalition options possible, including a "grand coalition" of the two big parties or three-way governments involving smaller parties.
The pro-business Free Democrats, junior partners in Merkel's federal government, rebounded from a series of dismal results in other states and were on track to make it back into the regional assembly with 8.5 percent of the vote.
But the CDU and FDP, who have ruled Schleswig-Holstein since 2009, were well short of a majority, as were the SPD and the environmentalist Greens party, who had hoped to form a two-way left-leaning coalition.
(Reporting by Alexandra Hudson, Erik Kirschbaum and Alice Baghdijan)