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The View from Abroad, Part IV -- The German Election System

by: tmess2

Mon Sep 02, 2013 at 17:42:10 PM EDT


As we close out Labor Day weekend and wait for Congress to get back to D.C. and hopefully actually pass appropriations and debt limit bills (among other significant legislation) somewhat on time, it's time in this series to take a look at Germany.  The best way to describe the German political system is to say that looks are deceiving in the sense that every simple statement that could be made about their system of government and elections is not quite accurate.

For example, Germany has a two-house legislative branch, sort of.  The Federal Legislature is composed of two houses -- the Bundesrat (sort of a Senate) and the Bundestag (sort of a House of Representatives.  Like the U.S. Senate, the Bundesrat represent a state (in Germany, Landers).  However, unlike the U.S. in which Senators are directly elected, the 69 members of the Bundesrat are actually the chief minister of each Lander and the senior members of the cabinet for each Lander.  In additionally, the delegation from each Lander votes as a block (with each Lander getting between three and six votes depending on population.  Basically, the Bundesrat is the National Governor's Association with real legislative power. 

The role of the Bundesrat depends on the legislation involved.  For changes to the German constitution, any proposal must get 46 votes out of the 69 in the Bundesrat.  For legislation affecting issues on which the Lander have concurrent jurisdiction, the bill must get 35 votes out of 69 in the Bundesrat.  For other legislation, the Bundesrat can merely make it more difficult for the Bundestag to pass the final bill.  (If there are 35 votes in the Bundesrat against a bill, it must get a majority of all members in the Bundestag -- not too difficult as the government by definition has a majority of all members.  However, if there are 46 votes in the Bundesrat against a bill, the bill must get a two-thirds majority of all members in the Bundestag which the government does not have.)  Because of the nature of German politics, most lander governments are actually coalitions between two or more of the five major parties.  Currently, the national coalition controls landers with a total of 15 votes, a unity government controls landers with 18 votes, and the opposition control landers with 36 votes.  Thus, the government can typically pass ordinary bills through the bundestag without compromising with the opposition, but does need to make back room deals to pass those bills on which the Lander have concurrent jurisdiction.

The Bundestag is technically elected by a mixed member system and technically has 598 regular seats, but both statements are misleading.   When voters go to the polls on September 22, there will be two halves to the ballot.  On one side, there will be the race for that voter's constituency.  This race is a first-past-the post and the candidate with the most votes win the seat.  The other side of the ballot is a vote by party to be used in a form of proportional representation.  Here is where the German system gets complicated.

There are 299 constituencies in Germany.  Among the lander, Bremen has the fewest constituencies (2) and North Rhine-Westphalia has the most constituencies (63).  Each lander begins with twice the number of seats as it has constituencies.  For example, Bremen has a total of 4 seats and North Rhine-Westphalia has 126 seats. 

Given that the constituencies are first past the post, it should not be particularly surprising that the two major parties get a higher total of the votes in the constituencies (with supporters of the minor parties voting strategically) and that most of the constituencies go to the two major parties.  (In 2009, the two major parties won 282 of the 299 constituencies.)  The trick of the German system is that who wins the constituencies is secondary because of how the proportional representation system works.

The proportional representation system does not allocate just the 299 seats that do not represent constituencies, it allocates all 598 seats.    A party qualifies for allocation via proportional representation by meeting one of two conditions:  either getting 5% of the vote in the lander or 3 constituencies in the lander (even in Westphalia, it is hard to win three seats without getting 5% of the total vote).  With the possible exceptions of Bremen and Saarland (which has 4 constituencies, thus 8 seats), 5% of the vote is enough to win 1 seat in each lander.  Thus a party getting 40% of the vote gets roughly 40% of the seats for the lander (roughly, because the formula used, the Sainte-Lague method,  allocates seats one-by-one rather than all seats at once in strict proportions as other systems like largest remainder do).  Once the seats have been allocated, they are filled from the party list with two major caveats. 

First, a party's seats in a lander are filled first by any member elected to represent a constituency.  Thus, if one party won thirty seats and twenty-five constituencies, the first twenty-five seats are filled by the members who won a constituency and only the first five on the party's list get elected while another party that won twenty seats but no constituencies would fill its twenty seats with the first twenty names on its list. 

Second, if a party wins more constituencies than seats in a lander, all of its seats are filled by those elected from the constituenices, all of the other parties keep the seats that they won in the lander, and the extra seats won by that first party are added to the lander's representation in parliament as "overhang" seats, thereby increasing the total size of parliament.  In the last election, there were 24 overhang seats. 

tmess2 :: The View from Abroad, Part IV -- The German Election System

Now to the pragmatics of German politics.  There are five major parties, the Christian Democratic Union (except in Bavaria in which a sister party -- the Christian Social Union -- runs), the Social Democratic Party, the Free Democratic Party, the Green Party, and "the Left."  The Left is the newest party, and is the direct descendant of the former East German Communist Party.  At the national level, "The Left" is still considered to be an unacceptable coalition partner, but that has begun changing at the state level.

In the old, pre-re-unification days, the CDU was considered to be a traditional center-right party in the European model (i.e. somewhere between the Democratic Party and the Eisenhower Republican Party), the SDP was considered to be a traditional center-left Socialist party (i.e. significantly to the left of the Democratic Party)  and the FDP was somewhere in the middle, switching back and forth as the kingmaker.  Since the rise of the Greens, the FDP has become seen as somewhat more conservative, being strongly pro free market, internationalization, and privatization.  In the last election in 2009, the CDU/CSU took 39.4% of the constituency vote (218 seats) and 33.8% of the party list vote (for another 21 seats); the SDP took 27.9% of the constituency vote (64 seats) and 23% of the party list vote (for another 82 seats); the FDP took 9.4% of the constituency vote (0 seats) and 14.6% of the party list vote (for 93 seats); the Left took 11.1% of the constituency vote (16 seats) and 11.9% of the party list vote (for another 60 seats); and the Green's took 9.2% of the constituency vote (1 seat) and 10.7% of the party list vote (for another 67 seats).  The split in the vote shows the difficulty of reunification with the SDP being the leading leftist party in the former West Germany and the Left still being the leading leftist party in the former East Germany.  As the split last time shows (with the CDU and FPD coalition taking 48.8% of the constituency vote and 48.4% of the party list vote to 48.2% of the constituency vote and 45.6% of the party list vote for the opposition), overhang seats can be the key to a comfortable legislative majority -- taking 22 of the 24 overhang seats to increase their margin from a 22 vote (310 to 288) majority to a 42 vote majority (332 to 290).

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