Germany’s 2021 election: How Germans vote

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Posted on the 23rd September 2021

This is a guest post from Dylan Difford, as part of a series on elections, party systems and voting methods around the world.

This Sunday (26th March), Germany goes to the polls to elect its national parliament – the Bundestag. With Angela Merkel stepping down as Chancellor after 16 years, this election will cause only the fifth change in Germany’s head of government in the last 50 years. Ahead of this vote, we thought we’d take a look at the electoral and party systems of Europe’s largest democracy.

The voting system

The Bundestag is elected using a Mixed-Member Proportional system, known in Germany as ‘Personalised Proportional Representation’. It currently has a base of 598 members, with 299 elected in single-member constituencies by First Past the Post and a minimum of 299 elected using Party List PR in each state. To be eligible to win list seats, a party must win more than 5% of the vote nationally or win three single-member constituencies. 299 is only the minimum number of list seats as there are almost always more than this due to both ‘overhang’ and ‘levelling’ seats.

Overhang seats

Overhang seats occur when a party wins more FPTP seats than it would be proportionately entitled to. Under the Scottish and Welsh Additional Member Systems, doing this denies other parties of the ability to win their full, fair allocation of seats. But in Germany, additional list seats are added to ensure that each party has a near-identical vote:seat ratio at the national level. These levelling seats create pure proportional representation for parties that qualify for list seats and neutralise any advantage a party builds up on the FPTP seats. They do, however, lead to a significant inflation in the size of the Bundestag – the 2017 election saw the creation of 111 additional seats, giving Germany a total of 709 MPs.

Parties and Government

The moderately multi-party system of modern Germany is led by the two major, ‘Chancellor’ parties – the centre-right CDU (including their Bavarian sister party, the CSU) and the centre-left SPD. The CDU has historically been the more dominant party, being the largest parliamentary faction after all but three elections and providing five of the Federal Republic’s eight Chancellors – including Adenauer, Kohl and Merkel, who all served in office for more than 14 years. The SPD, who held the Chancellery in two periods from 1969-82 and 1998-05, have spent the last eight years as the junior partner to the CDU as part of a so-called ‘grand coalition’.

During the 1960s and 70s, Germany had a pure two-and-a-half party system with the half being the liberal FDP. Then the ‘pivot’ party in the middle, the FDP is today associated more with right-wing, economic liberalism and is seen as closer to the CDU. In 1983, the Greens became the first other party to cross the 5% national threshold since it was introduced in 1957. They have since become a key presence in German politics and have held the Minister-President (state-level head of government) position in Baden-Württemberg since 2011.

After reunification in 1990, these four parties were joined by the PDS – the successor to the East German Communist Party. It merged with a left-wing breakaway from the SPD in 2007 to form Die Linke (The Left) and its support remains heaviest in the former East Germany. The most recent addition to the Bundestag is the right-wing populist, if not far-right, AfD, who won their first seats in 2017. Like Die Linke, their support is stronger in the East.

The German party system runs deep, with nearly all seats in Germany’s 16 state parliaments being taken by these six parties. Nonetheless, this election could represent a big shake-up of that system, with polls pointing to the CDU’s worst-ever result and the Greens expecting the best third-party performance ever. The SPD, who have long been regarded as in a terminal decline, have experienced a surge in support in the last month, with their candidate, Olaf Scholz, now favourite to be the next Chancellor. The AfD and Die Linke are both set for moderate losses.

Germany has historically opted for two-party coalitions at the national level – with the last 50 years seeing SPD-FDP, CDU-FDP and SPD-Green governments, as well as the CDU-SPD grand coalition that has been in power for most of Merkel’s term as Chancellor. It isn’t entirely clear which coalition will be formed this time, but polls suggest it will likely have to involve three parties – a situation that has become increasingly common at the state level.

There, pretty much every combination of CDU, SPD, FDP and Green has been tried, with many given nicknames based on the colours of the parties. A ‘traffic light’ coalition (red-yellow-green) comprises the SPD, FDP and Greens, a ‘Jamaica’ coalition (black-yellow-green) is the CDU, FDP and Greens and a ‘Kenya’ coalition (black-red-green) involves the CDU, SPD and Greens. There are also some ‘Red-Red-Green’ state coalitions involving Die Linke, but there is still some apprehension about inviting them into the national government. The AfD, who have been subject to a ‘cordon sanitaire’, are likely to remain excluded from any government at any level for the foreseeable future.

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