How people elect parliaments
Germany’s centre-right Christian Democrat Union party has come first in the third of three German state elections in recent months – welcome news for national chancellor Angela Merkel.
North Rhine-Westphalia is Germany’s most populous state, with 20% of the national population. Trends here are normally seen as indicators of the national political direction.
According to exit polls the CDU has won an estimated 33% of the vote, overtaking the governing Social Democratic Party (SPD) which appears to have won 31%. While final results are not confirmed, SPD leader and state premier Hennelore Kratft has already conceded the loss, and the CDU is expected to form the new state government.
Voter turnout was relatively high for a state election, at over 65%.
The CDU and SPD are Germany’s two major political parties. All German national or state governments are either coalitions led by one or other of the two, or else ‘grand coalitions’ where the two form a large parliamentary majority by governing together.
In North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) three, and possibly four, other parties will pass the standard German threshold of 5% of the vote and take seats in the state parliament, the Landtag.
The Free Democrat Party (FDP), apparently winning 12% of the vote, has come third, and is the presumptive coalition partner for the CDU.
The FDP vote has risen from 8.6% at the last state election in 2012. The revival of support among voters is a major boost for the party nationally, after it fell just below the 5% threshold at the last national elections in 2013.
If the FDP returns to a significant holding of seats in September’s national elections, Chancellor Merkel may have another coalition option in addition to her current position of governing in a grand alliance with the SPD.
The Greens, the current governing party with the SPD at the state level, have seen their vote drop from 11% to 7%. They will remain in the Landtag, but with a sharp drop in seat numbers.
Also in the state Landtag for the first time will be the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, an anti-immigrant movement seen as the German far right.
Winning 7% of the vote, AfD now has representation on 13 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments. Polls indicate they will achieve entry into the national Bundestag at September’s elections.
Overall, the state results today and in recent elections in Schleswig-Holstein and Saarland all indicate a shift towards right-of-centre parties across Germany, although the AfD itself seems to have a ceiling of around 7% of the vote.
Late in counting on election night, a sixth party – The Left – has increased its vote from 2.5% in 2012 to 4.9% today, and looks set to just narrowly miss out on winning seats in the Landtag.
The make-up of the Landtag follows Germany’s composite ‘mixed-member-proportional’ (MMP) system of awarding parliamentary seats, used to elect the national Bundestag and all but one of the state parliaments.
Nominally there are 181 seats in the NRW Landtag, consisting of 128 local electoral divisions electing single members by plurality (first-past-the-post) voting, and a minimum of 53 more seats awarded to provide party-proportionality.
The final composition of the chamber is intended to ensure that all the parties with more than 5% of the statewide vote have seat numbers in mathematical proportion to each other’s vote shares. Voters indicate their support for parties for this purpose using the ‘second’ of two votes that they cast.
But the starting point for working out the seat numbers is who wins the 128 local electoral divisions, won through the ‘first’ votes.
All the local electoral divisions in German elections are typically won by the CDU and SPD parties. In the last NRW election in 2012 the SPD recorded a dramatic vote lead over the CDU (39% over 26% statewide), and won 99 of the 128 seats to the CDU’s 29.
Had the Landtag consisted of these 128 seats alone the 2012 election would have seen a massive, and highly distorted, parliamentary majority. It is exactly to avoid such outcomes – common in the UK, Canada and other nations using plurality voting – that the Germans developed their voting system.
However in elections where one of the major parties wins a large majority of the local seats, their seat total usually exceeds the share of the nominal 181 seats the Landtag is meant to have.
The solution is that the total number of seats simply expands, with the total of the largest party becoming the mathematical reference point against which all other eligible parties have their seat numbers determined.
So in 2012 the SPD’s 99 seats, in proportion to their 39% vote share, effectively established the basic seat-to-vote ratio. The CDU was then determined to be due a total of 67 seats, so they were allocated 38 additional seats. The Greens were allocated 29 seats, the FDP 22 seats, and the Pirate Party (which has failed at this year’s election) 20 seats.
The plenary chamber of the North Rhine-Westphalia Landtag (image: Wikipedia)
The resulting grand total from the 2012 elections was thus 237 Landtag seats, far higher than the nominal 181 and requiring major practical changes in terms of the parliamentary chamber and, more importantly, electoral offices for the 56 one-off members of parliament.
All these additional Landtag members are drawn from candidate lists that the parties register before the election. These lists can include the names of candidates who are also running for the local seats, so in many cases specific candidates are guaranteed to receive seats in the Landtag either way.
The Germans refer to the extra seats won by parties as Ausgleich (compensation) seats. The leading party is said to have Überhang (overhang) seats above the number that they would have won had the parliament been party-proportional at the nominal 181seat total.
At tonight’s election the situation is far more balanced, with the CDU having a lead of less than 2% over its SPD rivals.
Using the exit poll numbers, in terms of simple proportions of 181 seats the CDU would be allocated 66 seats to the SPD’s 63. But the starting point will still be the number of local electoral divisions (Wahlkreis) seats won, which will now be much less of a landslide than the 2012 result.
With 127 of the 128 Wahlkreis results counted, the CDU has won 72 to the SPD’s 55. In the final undecided seat the CDU is leading. [Update: the final result is actually 72 CDU and 56 SPD.]
By the end of the night the CDU will thus have an overhang number of just 6 seats more than its 181-seat-based nominal allotment of 66. In response all other parties will also receive smaller allotments than they did in 2012. The Landtag should see a total of 200 members – nearly 40 fewer places than in 2012.
So despite their sharp increases in votes, the CDU and FDP will have only a few more seats than last time. The noticeable change will be the SPD dropping from 99 to around 69 seats, and the Greens from 29 to around 14. The AfD will have about 16 seats. The Pirate Party’s 20 seats disappear.
In the end, the all-important result is whether the presumptive CDU-FDP coalition will have a working majority, and be able to avoid either needing support from the AfD nor being forced into a grand coalition with the SPD.
It seems that they will. If the statewide vote totals remain as they are reported, the CDU will win 73 seats and the FDP 28, giving them a bare working majority of 101 out of 200 seats. [Update: the final result would now appear to be 72 CDU and 27 FDP for a putative coalition total of 99 seats out of 198 in total – exactly half the seats in the chamber. However these numbers may still adjust slightly as the final result is confirmed.]
A revival of the CDU-FDP coalition at national level is exactly what Angela Merkel will be hoping for in September.
The only remaining twist in today’s election would be that should The Left party somehow manage to scrape past the 5% threshold, it will instantly earn 11 new list seats, depriving the CDU-FDP coalition of its majority.
More updates: BBC News is reporting that the ‘second’ vote shares for the major parties – on which the final seat proportions will be based – are further apart, with the CDU on 34% and the SPD on 30%. If so the net effect will be for the SPD to be allocated 4-5 fewer seats, lowering the Landtag total and lifting the CDU-FDP above the seat target needed to form a majority.
However BBC also hints that The Left party may indeed have reached the 5% threshold, which would deny the CDU-FDP coalition such a majority.
First official results: (around 4am Central European Time) – the NRW electoral authority has stated the initial result of final seat numbers (including party list seats) as CDU 72 (all being Wahlkries district wins; 33.0% of the key ‘second vote’; no additional party list seats) seats, SDP 69 (56 Wahlkreis wins; 31.2% yielding 13 additional party list seats), FDP 12.6% yielding 28 party list seats, AfD 7.4% for 16 party list seats, and Greens 6.4% for 14 party list seats, with The Left party on 4.9% failing to qualify.
That result gives an CDU-FDP coalition a total of 100 out of 199 seats – the barest of majorities.