How do Germany’s Elections Work?
On September 26, Germany will hold its quadrennial parliamentary elections that will determine the Chancellor to succeed Angela Merkel who has led the country since 2005. Germany is a federal parliamentary democracy in which the most powerful office is the Chancellor – as head of state, the president officially ranks higher but the role is largely ceremonial.
Just over 60 million people are eligible to vote in Germany’s general election for the Bundestag—the lower house of the country’s parliament. Overall, the system seeks to combine the benefits of both direct and proportional representation while guarding against the electoral mistakes of German history which saw political fragmentation during the Weimar Republic between WWI and WWII.
The Bundestag is elected for a four-year term and a new general election must be held no sooner than 46 and no later than 48 weeks after a legislative term begins. The Federal President sets the date for Bundestag elections (Section 16 of the Federal Electoral Act). According to a convention of the constitution, the Federal Cabinet proposes a date for the elections. After asking the federal states (Länder) and the political parties represented in the Bundestag, the Federal Minister of the Interior proposes an appropriate date to the Federal Cabinet.
Germany has a two-vote system which is so notoriously complex that things can get a little complex and confusing, even for native citizens. The country is split into 299 constituencies, but the Bundestag, the lower house of the federal parliament, is made up of at least 598 seats, and usually more.
Who Can Vote?
As many as 60.4 million people (31.2 million women and 29.2 million men) aged 18 and above are eligible to vote in the 2021 national election, according to figures from Germany’s Federal Statistics Office.
Every citizen gets two votes. The first, Erststimme, is used to elect a local MP—roughly one representative for every 250,000 people. These votes are allocated using a first-past-the-post system, similar to Britain’s Parliament, and every winning candidate is guaranteed a seat.
The second vote, Zweitstimme, is for a party rather than a candidate. This is used to determine the overall proportion of seats that each party holds in the Bundestag.
Why does the Bundestag’s Size Vary?
Bundestag’s make-up has to reflect the results of the second vote. But it is common for voters to split their ballot, meaning parties often win more seats in the first vote than the second. If a party wins more constituencies than it is entitled to, based on its list vote share, the extras are known as “overhang seats”. Other parties are awarded “balance seats” to keep the chamber proportionally representative of the list vote. This is why the current Bundestag, which was elected in 2017 with 709 members, is the biggest ever. To keep its size in check, German parliamentarians voted last year to reduce the number of constituencies from 299 to 280 by 2025.
Parties devise their lists for the second vote at their conferences several months ahead of the election. This is often where their candidate for chancellor is also chosen. Germany’s government is usually a coalition. After the vote, talks get underway between parties and the new parliament is expected to convene within one month of the election. Whichever group of parties can command a majority gets to govern. Usually, the coalition party with the most seats fields the chancellor.
These seats are assigned from a ranked list of candidates via proportional representation, providing the party has won at least 5% of the national vote.
In order for a party to enter the Bundestag, it has to win at least 5 percent of the second vote. This system was put in place to prevent smaller splinter parties — like those that bogged down the Weimar Republic in the 1920s — from entering parliament.
The “5% hurdle” has served to keep the far-right NPD and other extremist parties out of the Bundestag.
Who picks the chancellor?
Unlike the presidential system in the United States, voters in Germany do not directly elect the chancellor (the head of the government). The new parliament must convene for the first time no later than one month after the vote. The chancellor needs to receive an absolute majority, more than half, of the votes in parliament to get elected.
That is where coalitions come into play. Because there are several political parties represented in the Bundestag, it’s unusual for a chancellor to receive an absolute majority of votes from only his or her party. To secure more than half of the votes, a larger party may team up with smaller parties to form a coalition government.
It can be earlier if coalition talks go swiftly. The top candidate from the party that wins the most votes usually manages to forge a coalition. The president, who is the head of state and plays a largely ceremonial role, then presents this person as candidate for chancellor, who the newly-elected members of parliament then approve in a secret ballot.
If a majority of parliamentarians do not vote for the chancellor candidate in the first round, a second phase of voting starts. Bundestag members may suggest other candidates, but these candidates must have the backing of at least a quarter of the Bundestag. Over the subsequent two weeks, an indefinite number of voting rounds may take place.
If no chancellor is elected at the end of 14 days, one final round of voting takes place. If a candidate then receives an absolute majority, he or she is immediately named chancellor. But if he or she only gains a plurality of votes, President is given seven days to decide whether to accept a so-called “minority chancellor” – who would have the same rights as a chancellor elected by an absolute majority – or to dissolve the Bundestag. If he dissolves parliament, new elections must take place within 60 days.