How Germany’s Election System Works: What to Watch for Sept. 22

Voters in the Federal Republic of Germany, which was created in 1949 under the Western allies after World War II, elect members of the 18th Bundestag, or lower house of parliament, on Sunday Sept. 22.

How many people can cast ballots?

Out of Germany’s population of about 80.5 million, 61.8 million are eligible to vote. Of these, about 3 million will be voting for the first time. Voting rights are given from the age of 18. The biggest single age group voting are those aged 70 and older, making up 20.1 percent of the electorate. Voting takes place in schools and other public buildings. In the last federal election in 2009, voter turnout was 70.8 percent.

Which German state has the most voters?

The western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, with 13.2 million, followed by Bavaria in the southeast with 9.3 million. Former communist East Germany, including what used to be West Berlin and East Berlin, has a total of 13.2 million voters. This means former West Germany dominates with 48.6 million voters. Germany reunified in 1990.

What are people voting for?

Voters don’t directly elect the chancellor. Instead, they elect members of the Bundestag who in turn choose the head of government. A total of 34 parties are fielding candidates in the election. Six parties are represented in the current Bundestag.

Frankfurt Votes

One of Germany’s states -- Hesse, which includes the financial capital, Frankfurt -- is also electing its regional parliament on Sept. 22.

Voters also don’t pick members of the Bundesrat, or upper house, to which the governments of the federal states send representatives. Germany’s mainly ceremonial federal president is also not chosen by popular vote. He or she is elected every five years by a special assembly comprising members of the Bundestag and the states. Joachim Gauck, a Lutheran pastor and one-time dissident from the former east, is Germany’s president.

Why do German voters each get two votes?

This is to allow each voter to cast one ballot to directly elect a Bundestag member in an individual district and another to vote for a party. Half of parliament’s members are chosen by the first ballot. The second vote determines each party’s strength in the Bundestag and is “the decisive ballot,” according to the Federal Election Director’s website.

Bundestag Seats

How many seats are at stake in the Bundestag?

The German parliament’s lower chamber has at least 598 members. Under Germany’s mixed proportional and direct electoral system, 299 members are directly elected in their districts and the other 299 members enter parliament via party lists through proportional representation.

What’s the 5 percent hurdle?

Under Germany’s proportional representation system a party that wins at least 5 percent of the vote gets seats in the Bundestag -- even if it fails to win any directly contested seats. This aspect of the German political system was put in place to give representation to smaller parties and has been crucial for the pro-business Free Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party, heirs to the East German communists.

‘Overhang’ Mandate

Why does the size of the German parliament vary after each election?

This is because of “overhang” and “compensation” parliamentary seats. Overhang seats are created if a party wins more directly elected seats in one of the 16 federal states than it would get under the proportional share-out from the second ballots cast by voters. Compensation seats are meant to ensure party proportion in the chamber. The normal-sized Bundestag would have 598 members, yet the outgoing chamber has 620 members thanks to overhang seats. A revamped law for handing out compensation seats may yield an even bigger chamber after the Sept. 22 vote.

How can a chancellor get elected with less than 50 percent of the popular vote?

Thanks to the extra seats created by overhang and compensation mandates, and because parties that take less that 5 percent of the national vote don’t qualify for the proportional share-out of seats, a chancellor’s coalition parties can win less than 50 percent of the vote yet still clinch a majority in the Bundestag.

Small Parties

That means Merkel’s Christian Democratic alliance and her preferred partner, the Free Democrats, might gain a majority even if they only win just over 44 percent nationwide, depending on how many parties enter the chamber. If all small parties, such as the anti-euro Alliance for Germany, or AfD, fail to clear the 5 hurdle needed to win seats, Merkel would need a lower percentage of the total vote to clinch a majority. If the AfD does get in, it will be more difficult for Merkel to secure a majority.

What does it take to win?

If there are no overhang seats and the Bundestag has 598 members then the “chancellor majority” needed to elect a new head of government is 300 seats. If there are overhang seats it’s one vote more than half the seats in the chamber. This differs from the simple majority of those present in the chamber needed to pass bills. In the past, ill or injured lawmakers have been carried into the chamber on stretchers for crucial Bundestag votes.

Results Timing

When can we expect the result on election day?

Polls open at 8 a.m. and close at 6 p.m. Public television stations ARD and ZDF will release exit poll results at exactly 6 p.m. From about 6:15 p.m. the networks start releasing election projections based on partially counted ballots. Unless the vote is very close, television networks should call the winners by 7 p.m. If the election is tight, then the final result may take far longer -- especially if it depends on compensation and overhang seats, the distribution of which is more complicated under revamped federal law being applied for the first time in this election. The “final preliminary” result is usually available about midnight with the final certified result, which rarely changes from the preliminary result, available a few weeks after election day.

Will the results be “Tweeted”?

Publication of exit poll results before voting stations close at 6 p.m. can lead to fines under German law. Leaked exit polls appeared on Twitter during voting hours of state elections in 2009.

Elephant Round

What is the “Elephant Round”?

After polls close on Sept. 22, the leaders of all the major parties take part in what is dubbed the “Elephant Round” -- a 45-minute joint TV interview that’s scheduled to start at 8:15 p.m. and is broadcast by ARD and ZDF. By this time the losers have usually conceded defeat, though after the 2005 election, defeated incumbent Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder insisted that it was Merkel who had lost, drawing expressions of incredulity from others taking part. Schroeder later joked nobody will ever beat what he termed his “cult” performance.

What happens after election day?

Party leaders will meet on Sept. 23 to decide how they’ll proceed with coalition talks.

How long will it take for the new government to be set up?

Coalitions are the rule in Germany -- Merkel’s current government has three parties -- and it generally takes four to eight weeks to negotiate a coalition accord after elections. Once the coalition agreement has been signed, parliament meets for its first session in Berlin’s Reichstag building to elect the chancellor.

How long is the chancellor’s term?

The Bundestag and chancellor are elected for four years, meaning that the next German election will be in 2017.

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