How people elect parliaments
Angela Merkel will remain as Chancellor of Germany, but Sunday’s Bundestag elections have seen a historically strong result for the nation’s minor political parties.
The combined popular vote share of Germany’s two major parties – the governing Christian Democrat coalition (CDU-CSU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) – has never been so low.
The typically reliable exit polls indicate that between them the two leading parties have secured just 53% of the national Zweitstimmen* or ‘second votes’ by which overall parliamentary numbers will be determined. (For non-German speakers, an excellent overview of the key German electoral terminology is here.)
The strong swing to the minor parties may cause the Bundestag to expand dramatically to nearly 700 members, up from the nominal membership of 598.
The German Bundestag in session
On exit poll numbers Merkel’s CDU-CSU group has shed nearly 9% of the vote since the last elections in 2013, falling from 41.5% to 32.9%, while the SPD has lost 5%, falling from 25.7% to less than 21%.
Between them the parties of the governing coalition have suffered a swing against them of nearly 15%.
The populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party enters the Bundestag for the first time, placing third with 13% of the Zweitstimmen.
The Free Democrats (FDP) re-enter the Bundestag after failing to meet the 5% Zweitstimme threshold in 2013, with an estimated 10.6% of the vote overnight.
The socialist Die Linke (Left) party scored 9.1%, and the Greens 8.9%.
The Left and Green results are almost identical to those of 2013, while the big winners of the swing away from the major parties are the FDP and the AfD.
Voter turnout appears to be up sharply, from 71% in 2013 to around 76% of eligible voters.
The large vote outcomes for four separate minor parties will probably have the effect of significantly enlarging the size of the Bundestag, which should nominally consist of 299 local division members plus 299 additional members nominated through party lists.
However under the mixed member-proportional (MMP) electoral system, when minor parties poll well the need to align the final seat shares of all the six successful parties to their Zweitstimme vote shares inevitably leads to an expansion of the nominal 299 additional party list appointees to the parliament.
Almost all the 299 divisional seats are won by candidates of the CDU-CSU and the SPD, and indeed on overnight results the large lead of the CDU-CSU over the SPD means the centre-right parties will likely have won a large and disproportionate majority of these seats.
The calculations necessary to bring all the other five parties into alignment with the CDU-CSU total may mean a historically large number of additional party appointees are drawn from the lists. Voters cannot directly influence who is appointed as the party list members of the parliament.
In 2013 the number of party-list members was boosted to 331. At the time of posting Deutsche Welle is projecting a new Bundestag totalling 692 members, 60 seats larger than the previous chamber. (That projection is sure to alter as counting is completed).
That outcome would mean an assembly consisting of only 43% locally elected members, probably the lowest ever seen in any of the world’s part directly-elected / part party-list electoral systems.
Of more immediate concern to Germany is the coming task of forming a majority government.
Each of the AfD and the Left party are regarded as unacceptably extreme cabinet participants by both the major parties. Never before have 22% of the seats in the Bundestag been held by such ‘untouchable’ parties.
The German Cabinet (with Chancellor Angela Merkel, lower right) occupy special seats on the floor of the Bundestag chamber
In Angela Merkel’s first (2005-09) and third (2013-17) governments, the unwillingness to deal with extreme parties led the CDU-CSU and the SPD to govern together in a ‘grand coalition’.
But another dramatic development overnight was the declaration by SPD leader Martin Schulz that his party will now withdraw from that arrangement. The perception is strong that his party’s historically low vote share is a penalty from co-habitation in the outgoing government, and that the SDP would recover better in the long term from a spell in opposition.
Schulz’s declaration means that just 58% of the members of the Bundestag, from three parties, are available to form a coalition government. The only option at this stage is the ‘Jamaica coalition’ of CDU-CSU, the FDP and also the Greens.
Schulz’s withdrawal from government has effectively forced both the FDP and the Greens into Cabinet in his place.
Such a diverse coalition, while novel at the national level, is certainly possible. The FDP is a traditional partner with Merkel’s parties, and the Greens and the CDU are actually sharing government in two German states. A three-party Jamaica coalition was established in the state of Schleswig-Holstein after elections earlier this year.
The policy tensions between the FDP and the Greens are fairly stark, however, despite amicable relationships between the party leaders.
But a further problem will be reconciling the Greens and the Christian Social Union (CSU) – the Bavarian state member of Merkel’s national party coalition.
The CDU, nominally a centre-right party, has a track record of pragmatic centralism going back decades, and bears little resemblance to the Conservative parties in Britain and Canada, nor to the US Republican Party or the French Republicans.
The CSU, however, is a more orthodox right-wing and Catholic values party. Disagreements with the Greens over environment, energy and social policies are inevitable.
The situation is that Germany now sees as many as seven different political parties in its parliament, from which at least four must combine to achieve a majority government.
A minority government is strictly possible, but the parties must at least agree on electing a Chancellor at the first meeting of the Bundestag, meaning that even non-cabinet parties must at least take sides. In practice, however, Angela Merkel may be the only realistic candidate for the position.
All German political parties are long-experienced in the art of negotiating coalition outcomes, and the variety of party cabinet combinations at state level certainly helps keep party relations more amicable than in many other democratic nations. But the 2017 Bundestag result is clearly the most complex scenario yet faced.
It may ease discussions somewhat that Angela Merkel is the undisputed leading figure coming out of the election, and that on the public announcements so far there is really only a single viable majority coalition option.
The situation stands in stark contradiction to the way the parliamentary systems using plurality voting – in the UK, Canada and several other nations – operate. In defence of plurality systems, major parties and their supporters argue that the single-district plurality voting system and one-party majority executives are essential to stable government.
British Prime Minister Theresa May campaigned on delivering ‘strong and stable government’, but the result of the June elections in Britain was anything but that.
The Germans, despite their multi-party outcomes, would no doubt argue that their political system is the most stable and moderate of any large democracy.
The downside is the role of party-list appointed members of the parliament, who are not directly elected by the voters.
Election results so far are based on exit polling – which has traditionally proven to be very accurate – but official election results will be posted by the German Federal Returning Officer.
* Update: an earlier version of this post had an editing error – the term Erststimme (first vote) incorrectly used in place of Zweitstimme (second vote). Thanks to reader Oli for picking that up.