German Elections 2017

In a little over two weeks (September 24), Germany will hold parliamentary elections.  As with most parliamentary system, the leader of Germany is determined by which party (or coalition of parties) wins the majority of seats in parliament.  As such, the results on September 24 will determine if Angela Merkel continues as Chancellor of Germany for another four years.

In electing members of its parliament (the Bundestag),Germany uses a variation on the mixed member system.  The basics of this system is that voters cast two ballots.  In one, they vote for the person who will represent their constituency in parliament.  On the second, they vote for the party.  Each lander (think state) has a certain number of constituencies.  On the high end is North Rhine-Westphalia (Bonn, Cologne, Dusseldorf) with sixty-four constituencies.  On the low end is Bremen with two constituencies.  In total, there are two hundred ninety-nine constituencies.

In theory, each lander has a number of “party list” seats equal to the number of constituencies in the lander (which would translate to a parliament of 598 seats), but there is a catch.  In calculating, the number of party list seats that each party wins in each lander, the formula uses the whole number of seats in the lander (constituency plus party list seats and allocates them using proportional representation (i.e. if a party won 10% of the vote, they are entitled to 10% of the seats) based on the vote for each party in that lander.  After calculating the number of seats that each party should receive from the lander, the formula then subtracts the number of constituency seats that each party has won.  If that leaves any party with a negative number (i.e. the party won more constituency seats than the number of seats that they would have won under proportional representation), the party gets to keep the extra seats (commonly called overhang seats), the other parties receive “compensation” seats to make the results proportional, and the lander ends up with additional seats in parliament.  )

There are two mechanisms for qualifying for party list seats — win 5% of the vote nationally or win three constituency seats.  In the last election, the Christian Democrats (including their Bavarian counterpart), the Social Democrats, and the Left were the only parties to win three or more constituency seats.  (Since unification, these are the only three groups to win three or more constituency seats in any election.)  Other parties have, in the past reached the five percent national threshold to win party list seats.  For the party list seats, while the lander results are used to allocate the seats, it is the national result that determines if a party is eligible for seats.  In other words, if a party got 8% nationally, they will still get seats from a lander in which they only received 4% of the vote.  On the other hand, a party that only got 4% of the vote nationally will not win any party list seats in a lander even if they got 7% of the vote in that lander.

Based on the polls and the results in 2013, there are six parties that have a reasonable chance at winning seats this election.  The party group that is likely to win the most seats are the Christian Democrats of current Chancellor Angela Merkel.  (The Christian Democrats run in fifteen of the sixteen lander.  They do not run in Bavaria where their sister party, the Christian Social Union runs.)  The CDU is traditionally a center-right party (think of them as a little to the left of a moderate Republican).  In the last election, the CDU won 311 (out of 631) seats on 41% of the vote nationally.

Second place is likely to go to the Social Democrats, a center-left party (think of them as a little to the left of Bernie Sanders).  In the last election, the Social Democrats won 193 seats on 26% of the vote.  There was a time earlier this year when the Social Democrats (with a new leader) were running neck and neck with the CDU.  The most recent polls, however, put the CDU in the upper 30s and the SDP in the lower 20s (in other words roughly the same place as 2013 with a slightly larger share going to the minor parties).

In the last election, third place went to the Left.  The roots of the Left are in the old Communist Party of East Germany and its base tends to be in that part of the country where it runs even with or ahead of the SDP (in several lander in what used to be West Germany, the Left struggles to get 5%).  In the last election, the Left won 64 seats (including four constituencies in East Berlin) on 8% of the vote.

Of the remaining three parties, only the Greens won seats in the last election (63 seats on 8% of the vote).  Like in the U.S., the Greens are an environmental/ultra-progressive party in Europe.  The other two parties — the Free Democrats and Alternative for Germany fell just short of 5% in 2013.  The Free Democrats used to be the centrist party in Germany holding the balance of power between the CDU and SDP.  However, they have become more conservative/quasi-libertarian.  The Alternative for Germany is an ultra-nationalist (think Donald Trump) party.  (Alternative for Germany started about five years ago as a Euro-sceptic party but has become so far right that some of its founders who were centrists have abandoned the party.)

For the four smaller parties, polling has changed dramatically over this year.  Just before Trump was elected, the Alternative for Germany looked like it might finish in third place with something in the mid-teens.  Since then the number has dropped.  Depending upon which poll you credit, all four are looking at receiving something between 7 and 11% of the vote which would mean that they would all win some seats.

If the poll results hold up, several things are likely to be true.  First, as in the recent elections, the CDU will probably win a very large majority of the constituency seats.  (In 2013, the CDU/CSU won 236 of the 299 constituency seats.)  Such a one-sided result will also mean that the CDU/CSU will pick up a large number of overhang seats.  Second, there will be a much tinier percent of the vote going to no-qualifying parties. (In the last election over 13% went to non-qualifying party as both the FDP and Alternative barely missed qualify; if they had both qualified, the non-qualifying vote would have been around 4% which is what seems to be likely this election.)  That means that the same percentage of the vote as last time will translate into fewer party list seats for each of the four parties that won seats in 2013.

The German election system tends to produce coalition governments (but, since the founders of West Germany wanted to avoid repeating the disaster of the Weimar Republic, there are several rules in place to enhance the stability of such coalitions and avoid early elections.)  In the perfect world, the CDU would prefer to form a coalition with the FDP and the SDP would prefer to form a coalition with the Greens.  At least for now, neither the CDU nor the SDP see the Left or Alternative as suitable coalition partners.  Given the recent weakness of the FDP and the strength of the Left, two of the last three elections (including the 2013 elections) have resulted in  a “grand” coalition of the CDU and SPD.  Based on where polling currently stands, while the FDP is almost certain to return to parliament, it looks more likely than not that the CDU/CSU and FDP will not win enough combined seats to have a majority.  While it is theoretically possible that the CDU/CSU could reach out to the Alternative or the Greens, both are unlikely.  As such, the most likely result is another coalition government between the CDU and SDP.

In short, it looks likely that the status quo will prevail in Germany.  Given the hostility between Chancellor Merkel and President Trump, the solid win for Chancellor Merkel has to be seen as another rebuke to Trumpism by a major European democracy.  (Particularly as Trump’s preferred party has fallen so significantly over the past twelve months.)  For the U.S., this means that we can expect Germany to continue to assert itself as the natural leader of Europe — particular with the U.S. being effectively AWOL from European issues under President Trump.  The tough question for the U.S. will be whether — under a new President in 2021 who believes that the U.S. should play a leading role in forming the international consensus on the major global issues — we will be able to reclaim our leadership from Germany.

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