Germany Elections Explained: Their Unique Voting System, Likely Winners & More

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The federal elections in Germany on Sunday, 26 September, mark the end of an era as the German people prepare themselves to be governed by a new leader who would replace Angela Merkel.

The four-time Chancellor ruled over Germany for 16 years and her decision to step down and not run for a fifth term has resulted in one of the most unpredictable races in German electoral history.

On 26 September, the German people will elect a new lower house to their parliament – Bundestag – and consequently a new chancellor.

Germany's electoral system, called the personalised proportional representation system, is, to say the least, complicated. But it is also arguably the most representative.

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How Voting Works in Germany

Germany is divided into 299 constituencies or electoral districts. But the Bundestag has 598 base seats because the German voters have two votes each – the 'first vote' and the 'second vote'.

The First Vote

The first vote is easier to understand as it uses the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, which uses a simple majority rule. This means that the candidate with the highest number of votes wins their seat in the Bundestag.

This vote allows a voter to directly elect a representative of their electoral district to the Bundestag. Therefore, the people vote for their preferred local candidate, who does not necessarily belong to the party they prefer on the national level.

The winning candidate is said to have a 'direct mandate' and their seat in the Bundestag is guaranteed. There are 299 such candidates.

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The Second Vote

Nationally, the second vote is more important because it determines the number of seats that a party will have in the Bundestag.

This is where it gets complicated. With the second vote, the German people vote for their preferred party, and the number of party candidates allocated seats in the Bundestag is proportional to that party’s vote share.

Why Vote Twice?

The purpose of the second vote is to rectify the biggest drawback of the FPTP system, which is that the popular vote won by a party is often not reflected in the number of seats won by that party in parliament.

For example, in the 2019 elections in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi won 37 percent of the total votes, but 56 percent of the seats in the Lok Sabha.

Similarly, in the 2019 UK elections, the Conservative Party led by Boris Johnson won 44 percent of the total votes but 56 percent of the seats in the House of Commons.

Proportional Representation

To solve the FPTP issue, the 'second vote' in Germany uses the proportional representation system.

In each of the 16 states, political parties create party lists, that is, lists of candidates who don't represent electoral districts but can secure seats in the Bundestag depending on the party's share of the state vote.

The idea is to select an overall number of members from a party list that is proportional to the vote share of that party. For example, if a party wins 30 percent of the party list votes, then it should have 30 percent of the seats in the Bundestag.

Only those parties that have gained more than 5 percent of the second votes or at least 3 direct mandates can qualify for Bundestag seats.

This threshold exists to prevent the qualification of many tiny (often extremist) parties in the Bundestag that would result in an impossible scenario to generate coalitions.

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Overhang Seats

And this is where it gets interesting. What often occurs is that parties win more direct mandates than the number of seats allocated to them due to the proportional system and the party list vote.

For instance, a party may be qualified to have 120 seats in the Bundestag in proportion to its vote share, but it has won 135 seats by the first vote, that is, by direct mandate. Remember that the directly elected representatives secure a guaranteed spot in Parliament.

These extra 15 seats are called overhang seats. To compensate for a party's extra seats, more representatives from other parties are given seats in the Bundestag to maintain the proportionality of the second vote.

The extra addition of seats enlarges the German parliament beyond the 598 base seats and the number of seats in the Bundestag can vary after every election.

That is why the current one has 709 seats, 111 more than the base number while the previous Bundestag from the 2013 elections had 631 seats.

The Political Parties

A total of 47 parties are officially contesting the 2021 elections. But because of the 5 percent threshold rule, only seven parties have a realistic chance of entering the Bundestag and influencing coalition building.

These are the Christian Democratic Union of Germany or the CDU, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria or the CSU, the Social Democratic Party or the SPD, the Greens, The Left, the Free Democratic Party or the FPD, and the Alternative for Germany or the AfD.

The CDU and and its sister party, the CSU, compete as one political unit, calling themselves the Christian Democrats.

Because German election law demands that members of parties that have similar political objectives not compete against one another, the CSU contests elections only in Bavaria while the CDU does not compete in Bavaria at all and competes in the other 15 German states.

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So the CDU/CSU is a centre-right alliance that currently holds the most seats in the Bundestag (245/709) after the 2017 federal elections. Merkel herself belongs to the CDU, and her successor for chancellor candidacy is the current CDU chairperson Armin Laschet.

Created in 1863, the SPD is a centre-left party that is also the oldest German political party that still exists today, holding 152/709 seats in the Bundestag. Its candidate for Chancellor is Olaf Scholz, who is currently the Vice Chancellor and the Finance Minister of Germany.

The Greens are also a centre-left party with an emphasis on ‘green politics’ that supports climate action, social justice, and local democracy. They currently hold only 67/709 seats in the parliament. But their Chancellor candidate, Annalena Baerbock, had steered the Greens to the top of the polls in May before their popularity went down again.

The CDU/CSU, the SPD, and the Greens are regarded as the three main players of the 2021 elections.

However, due to the coalition system, the other three parties that are expected to qualify for seats in the Bundestag merit a short introduction.

The AfD is a far-right nationalist party that is against immigration and even Germany’s membership in the European Union.

While it shocked observers by winning 87/709 seats in the Bundestag, current polls show that it has consistent support amongst only 11 percent of German voters.

The centrist FDP that presently holds 80/709 seats and The Left that holds 69/709 seats, aren’t expected to perform any better in the 2021 elections. However, they do play a crucial role in coalition building.

What Happened in the 2017 Elections?

The SPD, which finished second to the CDU/CSU, initially refused to create the government with the latter, preferring to lead the opposition.

Subsequently, the CDU/CSU led by Merkel engaged in coalition negotiations with the Greens and the FDP.

But these talks failed, as a result of which the SPD agreed to become the junior partner of the coalition. The AfD led the opposition, along with the Greens, the FDP, and The Left.

What are the Possible Coalitions in 2021?

According to an analysis by Politico, based on the current polls that show the SPD in the lead, a coalition comprising the SPD, the Greens, and the FDP seems the most likely if the SPD finishes in first place ahead of the CDU/CSU.

Scholz has also publicly stated that he “would like to govern together with the Greens.”

However, if the CDU/CSU alliance does finish first yet again, then a coalition between them, the Greens, and the FDP is the likely outcome.

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A grand coalition comprising the CDU/CSU, the SPD, and the Greens would comfortably pass the numerical threshold required for a majority.

But this seems unlikely because neither the CDU/CSU nor the SPD would want to function as junior partner. Despite eight years of being in the same coalition, the CDU/CSU and the SPD are likely to end their alliance.

All parties have eliminated the possibility of an alliance with the AfD.

In the latest polls, Reuters reported the SPD to be polling at 25 percent, the CDU at 22 percent, the Greens at 17 percent, the FDP and the AfD both at 11 percent, and the Left Party at 6 percent.

However, negotiating coalitions and forming a government is often a long and time-consuming process.

This can even take multiple months to happen and because the current polls show such a tight race between the three main parties, coalition building will be especially slow this time around.

The current ruling coalition of the CDU/CSU and the SPD took almost 6 months after the 2017 election results to be formed because the initial talks for an alliance between the CDU/CSU, the FDP, and the Greens broke down due to disagreements on issues like migration and climate.

Therefore, government formation is expected to take quite some time. Nevertheless, this election promises to be a thriller.

(With input from Politico, Reuters, and The Guardian)

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