Elections seem to be really trendy at the moment. 2016 had a rather big one and 2017 will see important elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany. So, we thought we’d take a look the German electoral system. In the light of recent events, it’s particularly interesting to compare it to the US-System.
The Federal Structure of Germany
First of all, it’s important to know that the German political landscape consists of more than two major parties. Parties that pretty much constantly play a role in recent German politics are the conservative CDU (and its sister the CSU), the social-democratic SPD, the green party, the (neo-) liberal FDP, the socialist party “Die Linke”, and the right-wing newcomers from the AfD. Germany is split up into 16 federal states with different voting laws. Though those differences are minor in nature, e.g. concerning the legal voting age in communal elections etc.
Different Types of Elections
Which brings us to the different types of elections. There are, of course, elections for the Bundestag, the German parliament, which in turn picks the Chancellor. There is a 5% hurdle that bars too many smaller parties from entering parliament, thus preventing the creation of a working government to be overly complicated up to impossible. The coalition with the most seats in the Bundestag can form the Government. On the ballots, voters can make two kinds of crosses. With the first vote they are supporting a specific candidate from their electoral district, who in the case of success is being sent to the Bundestag. The second cross is a direct vote for one of the listed parties. Basically, the direct party-votes decide the proportions of the seat arrangement in the Bundestag. If a party has amassed fewer votes then district candidates, the candidates go through to the Bundestag anyway. This means that the number of representatives in the Bundestag may change with every election. As in other EU-Countries, non-citizens are not permitted to vote the Bundestag they are however allowed to vote the local assembly. The Bundestag is elected every four years and, interestingly enough, there is no limit of terms for the German Chancellor.
Fun fact: The Bundeskanzler (Chancellor), though being the government leader and the most powerful politician in the country is not the highest political office when it comes to protocol. Officially, the President (Bundespräsident) and the President of the Bundestag outrank the Chancellor. In reality, the office of the President is only a formal one, which almost doesn’t bestow any powers onto the person holding it. The President of the Bundestag is more of a manager of the Bundestag.
Of course, Germans also elect their respective federal parliaments. Organizational forms and names can vary from state to state, but overall the election process, as well as the function of parliament and government, are roughly the same. Still, state-ballots can look a lot different than the ones for the Bundestag. Regularly, citizens are prompted to vote in a referendum on specific state matters, whereas referendums are rarely ever held on a national level. The state parliament-terms last for five years and state elections are seldom held on the same date, which essentially means that there often are fluid slight power shifts throughout a government term.
Further elections include the aforementioned local elections, in which vote members of communal assemblies and representatives for state parliaments. And as all other EU-Citizens, Germans take part in the election of the European Parliament every five years.
In the end, German campaigns and elections are a lot less entertaining than American ones, but then again that might not be a bad thing as it seems that even such spectacle cannot raise voter turnout significantly.