Germany 101: German Federal Elections
On September 24th 61.5 million German voters will decide on the central decision in their democracy: who should represent them in Parliament and eventually govern the country? Elections to the German Bundestag (like our House of Representatives) are held about every four years, with the last election having been held in fall of 2013.
In grade school, most Germans are taught about the five principles in the Basic Law which stipulate that the members of the Bundestag be elected in “general, direct, free, equal and secret elections”. “General” means that all German citizens are able to vote once they have reached the age of 18. The elections are “direct” because citizens vote for their representatives directly without the mediation of delegates to an electoral college. “Free” means that no pressure of any kind may be exerted on voters. “Equal” means that each vote cast carries the same weight with respect to the composition of the Bundestag. “Secret” means that each individual must be able to vote without others learning which party or candidate he or she has chosen to support.
Where Do You Vote?
Germans have the options of voting at polling stations for example in community centers or schools, or sending in their vote by mail.
So. Many. Parties.
Germany has a lot more political parties than the United States. This is due to the fact that the German electoral system uses a proportional system, which means that all parties get a share of the available seats that reflect their share of the popular vote. However, not to have too many political factions which would make the decision making process nearly impossible – and Parties can get pretty specific as to what they stand for – Germany implemented the “five per cent clause” which means a party needs at least five percent of the votes cast to be represented in the Bundestag.
According to the German Research Institute the following parties are likely to be represented in the next German Bundestag, as they are expected to satisfy the five per cent clause:
- CDU/CSU (the Union parties): a political alliance of the two parties representing conservative Christian-democratic policies, political home of the current Chancellor Angela Merkel and part of the governing “grand coalition”
- SPD: the center-left social democratic party promoting “socially just” policies, the other member of the currently governing “grand coalition”
- Die Linke: “the left” party – a democratic socialist and left-wing populist party
- BÜNDNIS 90/DIE GRÜNEN: the green party which traditionally focuses on topics such as environmental protection
- FDP: the “free democratic” party - a (classical) liberal political party
- AfD: a right-wing populist and Eurosceptic party newly founded in 2013
First and Second Vote
Voters actually have two decisions to make when they go to their polling booth. This part can get tricky.
The first vote is for the representative of your district. There are 299 electoral districts in Germany and the winner of each district gets a seat in the Bundestag.
The second vote is debatably the more important vote, which is cast not for a person but for a party. The number of seats a party gets in the Bundestag is based on what proportion they get of the second votes. Since the first votes for district representatives take up 299 seats of the Bundestag, the remaining 299 seats are filled up by representatives of each party until each party is proportionally represented.
And now it’s going to get really complicated (also for Germans, believe it or not): In case a party gets more directly elected candidates by the first votes than proportional seats by the second votes, these candidates nonetheless remain part of the new Bundestag. This is called an “Überhangmandat”. The other parties then get seats added proportionally which makes the Bundestag even bigger. The last four years, because of this phenomenon there were in total 631 Members of the German Bundestag instead of the legally foreseen 598.
“Coalition” is not a word used in American politics. Coalitions are alliances formed by different parties in the Bundestag to end up with a group that makes up more than 50% of the seats. Traditionally the party with the most votes tries to form a coalition first. Typically coalitions have been comprised by two parties in the past, but in the future coalitions of three or more parties could be a reality. Why do this? Due to the voting system which is a proportional and not a majority one, this is in most cases the only way to create a majority in the Bundestag which is necessary to pass laws. The coalition parties tend to negotiate a coalition agreement at the start of their cooperation which lays out their policy goals for the coming legislative period. Though the majority party within the coalition typically has more sway in what stance the coalition will take on certain issues – such as who the Chancellor will be – the smaller party benefits from the coalition by typically receiving several Minister positions (think Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, etc.) which are filled with members of their party. They might also enforce some stances on their core political issues as long as they can get the “bigger” coalition partner to agree in the negotiations.
- German elections are general, direct, free, equal, and secret
- Germans vote in person or via mail
- There are a bunch of parties to choose from representing the full political spectrum from far left to far right
- Two votes: a first vote for a specific candidate representing your district and a second vote for your party determining the number of seats per party
- A Coalition is formed after all votes are in to create a group that holds more than 50% of the Bundestag seats
Got more questions? Shoot them to us in the comments below!