Understanding Germany’s elections

What’s at stake, which parties are running, and what the possible outcomes are in Germany’s Bundestag vote.

CDU Enters Final Phase Of Election Campaigning
Angela Merkel has been the chancellor of Germany since 2005 [Getty Images]

On September 22, tens of millions of voters in the EU’s most populous nation will go to the polls to select a new Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament.

Here’s what you need to know about the vote and about Germany’s rather complicated electoral system.

Which parties are running?

The German government has approved 34 parties to run in the elections. However, parties have to win at least five percent of the vote to enter the Bundestag.

Public opinion polls indicate that if the election were held tomorrow, five parties would win seats:

  • Far ahead of the rest of the pack is Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), with about four in ten voters consistently expressing their support.
  • About a quarter of Germans plan to vote for the centre-left German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the country’s oldest party and the CDU’s biggest rival.
  • Surveys show the free-market Free Democratic Party (FDP) – currently in a ruling coalition with the CDU – will likely get about five percent of the vote.
  • The left-wing Greens, traditionally an ally of the SPD, is backed by about 10-13 percent of German voters.
  • The Left – founded in 2007 as a merger of the PDS, a descendent of the former East German Communist Party, and the left-wing WASG party – is supported by about 7.5-10 percent of Germans.

The pro-internet freedoms Pirate Party and the anti-euro Alternative for Germany are polling between two to four percent, and are thus not likely to win seats – unless the polls are off or they receive a last-minute boost in support.

Which issues are at stake?

Few stark policy differences have separated Germany’s two biggest parties, the CDU and SPD, in this election. The parties agree that Germany should not intervene in Syria (as do the other three parties now represented in the Bundestag) – and with unemployment rates low, immigration hasn’t figured as a major issue in the campaign. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has tacked towards the centre on some economic issues, blurring some of the policy distinctions between the CDU and SPD.

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Eurozone: With talk that heavily indebted Greece may need a third bailout, the eurozone’s debt crisis has been in the news in recent weeks. Germany’s major parties agree that troubled countries using the common currency should be aided, and not allowed to default on their debts. Merkel has insisted that the debt-strapped countries implement tax hikes and public spending cuts as a condition of receiving bailout funds. But Germany’s left-of-centre parties have called for more lenient conditions, arguing that hardline austerity measures lead to recession – which could damage the German economy as well.

Minimum wage: Unlike most other countries in the European Union, Germany has no national minimum wage. The SPD and Greens want all workers to be paid at least 8.50 euros ($11.20) an hour, while the Left goes further, calling for 10 euros ($13.20) an hour. The CDU and FDP disagree that there should be a national minimum wage, instead favouring several minimum wages depending on workers’ regions and economic sectors.

Taxes: The SPD, the Greens, and especially the Left want to raise taxes on the country’s big earners. However, Merkel and the CDU oppose tax hikes, and so does the CDU’s coalition partner, the FDP.

US surveillance: This May, whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked to the Guardian that the United States National Security Agency is engaged in mass surveillance of electronic communications around the world. This struck a nerve in Germany, where people were subjected to stringent government surveillance during the Nazi era and in the former East Germany. The SPD’s chancellor candidate, Peer Steinbruck, has accused Merkel of not doing enough to prevent the US government from spying on Germans’ internet activities. For her part, Merkel has said she was not aware of the extent of the NSA’s activities.

What’s the likely outcome of the election?

In Germany, a government is formed and a chancellor is chosen when parties that hold a majority of seats in the Bundestag agree to participate in a ruling coalition.

The more likely outcomes

  • A continuation of the current, centre-right CDU-FDP coalition, with Merkel remaining chancellor. This will probably be the result if the FDP manages to eke out at least five percent of the vote and thus win seats in the Bundestag.
  • A “grand coalition” between the centre-right CDU and centre-left SPD, with Merkel remaining chancellor. This will likely be the case if the FDP fails to make it into the Bundestag. Although the parties have ideological differences, they have experience governing together: Germany was ruled by a CDU-SPD coalition during Merkel’s first term as chancellor, between 2005 and 2009.

The less likely outcomes

  • A left-wing coalition comprising the SPD, Green Party, and Left Party, with the SPD’s Steinbruck becoming chancellor. But the Left’s anti-NATO stance and Communist past make it an unpalatable coalition partner for the SPD. Furthermore, if the FDP makes it into parliament, this outcome would be moot, as the CDU and FDP would likely be able to continue governing together.
  • A “black-green” coalition between the centre-right CDU and Green Party. It’s happened before at the state level, in Hamburg, but the government fell apart after two years, and a coalition at the national level could be even more difficult to maintain.

How is Germany’s chancellor chosen?

Unlike in presidential democracies such as the United States and France, Germany’s chancellor is not elected directly by the voters. If this were the case, incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel would likely win in a landslide.

Instead, Germany’s president nominates a chancellor after the election – usually the leader of the party that won the most votes. The members of the Bundestag then vote by secret ballot. If a majority approve of the choice, then the nominee becomes chancellor. Otherwise, the Bundestag may choose its own candidate.

Germany’s president is the head of state, but in practice this is a mostly ceremonial position with little real power.

How exactly are members of the Bundestag elected?

This is where things get complicated. On election day, Germans will cast two separate votes.

The first vote is for a representative for their constituency. Whoever receives the most votes in each constituency wins a seat in the Bundestag. Half of the Bundestag’s roughly 598 members are elected in this way.

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The second vote is for a political party. This vote decides the level of representation each party will have in the Bundestag. To give a simplified example, let’s say the Green Party wins 15 percent of the second vote. It’s thus entitled to 15 percent of seats in the Bundestag, or about 90 MPs. In reality, this calculation is slightly more complex.

If the Green Party already won, say, 40 constituencies in the first vote, then the party would be entitled to send an additional 50 MPs to the Bundestag. These MPs are chosen based on lists of candidates drawn up at the state level. The other half of the Bundestag’s members is elected from these party lists.

Sometimes, a party will win more seats at the constituency level than they are entitled to based on the proportion of the second vote they received. In this case, the party will keep these extra seats. As a result of these so-called “overhang mandates”, the Bundestag often has more than 598 members.

Why is this system so complex?

The logic behind what political scientists call a “mixed member proportional system” such as Germany’s is to fulfill two goals: first, to ensure that Germans throughout the country have someone representing the interests of their local district (hence the first vote); while simultaneously ensuring that each party is represented in the Bundestag in proportion to its overall support nationwide (hence the second vote).

Do voters also get to elect members of Germany’s upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat?

No. The Bundesrat consists of delegations sent by the governments of Germany’s 16 states.

Al Jazeera Online’s Sam Bollier is in Germany covering the federal elections. Follow him on Twitter: @SamBollier