Thursday, October 28

Making elephants dance: a guide to Germany’s electoral system

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BERLIN — Sixty million voters, casting twice as many votes for 47 parties, leading to a parliament that could have anywhere from 700 to as much as 1,000 legislators – the German electoral system is baffling even to Germans. Here are its key features.


Germany’s electoral system was designed in reaction to the instability of the interwar Weimar Republic, where splinter parties and repeated elections contributed to the catastrophic rise of Adolf Hitler’s Nazis.

It aims to combine the British and US-style direct link between lawmakers and their constituencies with the proportional systems of most of Europe, where parties’ seat shares align with their vote shares.


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Voters cast two votes: the first for their representative in one of the 299 districts, the second for the party they want in parliament.

All elected district candidates take a seat in parliament. At least 299 more seats are available to ensure that regardless of how many district representatives a party has, the overall balance in parliament reflects the distribution of second votes.

In practice, it takes more than 598 seats to achieve that balance. At the moment, the Bundestag has 709 members, making it the world’s largest after China’s 3,000-member National People’s Congress.

Once, the social democrats (SPD) and the conservative CDU/CSU bloc had a duopoly of district legislators, but with the emergence of a more diverse party spectrum, parliament has grown over past decades.


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To limit fragmentation, parties need at least 5% of the vote or to win three individual mandates to get any seats in parliament at all. That led to the pro-business FDP being turfed out of parliament in 2013, and the hard-left Linke could suffer the same fate this year.


Within hours of polls closing on Sunday, the leaders of the parties that got into parliament will be interviewed together on television for the “Elephants’ Round,” a term coined to reflect the stature of the participants in their respective parties. The discussion will give the first indication of what governing alliances are coming.


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Typically, the chancellor candidate of the party with the most seats begins talks with the leaders of the parties he or she wants to work with. There is no requirement that the largest party provide the Chancellor, however.


Ordinarily, the president is confined to cutting ribbons and giving moralizing speeches. But Frank-Walter Steinmeier comes into his own after the elections, especially if coalition talks are difficult.

In 2017, the Free Democrats pulled out of three-way talks with the conservatives and the Greens after two months of talks. Steinmeier then stepped in, all but ordering a reluctant SPD to step up.

A “grand coalition” of the conservatives with the SPD took office in March 2018 after the longest government formation process in modern German history.

(Reporting by Thomas Escritt Editing by Tomasz Janowski)


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