Parties, parliament and voting

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

What kind of voting system does Germany have?

The Federal Republic of Germany’s parliament is made up of a lower house, the Bundestag and an upper house, the Bundesrat. The members of the Bundestag are elected by universal adult suffrage, while the Bundesrat consists of representatives of the different federal states, the Länder.

The German system is based on a combination of two voting systems: proportional representation and first-past-the-post.

How is the government elected?

Voters cast two votes in the elections for the Bundestag. The first vote (Erststimme) is used to choose a candidate for the constituency. This is done using the first-past-the-post system and ensures that each area is represented in the Bundestag. With the second vote (Zweitstimme), voters choose a party list – not an individual candidate. Each political party draws up a list with the candidates it thinks will best represent its interests in the Bundestag.

The composition of the Bundestag is decided by the seats that have been won directly in the 299 constituencies and the remaining 299 seats where the members have been elected through the party lists.

What is the five per cent clause?

German law stipulates that parties must gain at least five per cent of the second votes. This law was passed in 1953 to stop splinter parties getting into parliament and to avoid a reoccurrence of the problems that dogged the Weimar Republic.

But an exception is made if parties have winning candidates in at least three constituencies.

How is the government formed?

A party can form its own government if it gains 50 per cent or more of the overall number of seats. In Germany, this is unlikely because it has a fragmented parliamentary system. Even the two largest parties (SPD and CDU) often need to form a coalition with a smaller party to have enough votes to have a majority in the Bundestag.

How is the chancellor chosen?

The chancellor-candidate of the party that secures the most votes becomes chancellor and the junior-coalition party leader has traditionally been awarded the posts of foreign minister and vice-chancellor.

The parliament has 14 days to officially elect its chancellor once the election results are final.

What are the main parties?

The two largest parties in Germany are the left-leaning Social Democratic Party, SPD and the right-leaning Christian Democratic Union, CDU and its sister party, the Christian Social Union, CSU. There are three smaller parties: Alliance 90/The Greens, the Free Democratic Party, FDP. These parties have often formed a coalition with one of the two larger parties. The final party is the Left Party, which is made up of members of the former Party of Democratic Socialism and SPD dissidents.

How often do elections take place?

Usually every four years. The last German election was in September 2002 and the following election was expected to take place in 2006. But Horst Köhler, Germany’s president, dissolved the parliament after Gerhard Schröder lost the vote of confidence on July 1.

What happens between now and election day?

Under German law elections must take place within 60 days of parliament being dissolved. Mr Köhler announced that parliament had been dissolved on July 21 so that an election could be held on September 18 – after the end of the school holidays.

The election may not go ahead, however, if the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe decides that the decision to dissolve the parliament was unconstitutional. The court will reach a decision by the end of August.

What was the outcome last time?

Gerhard Schröder, leader of the SPD, secured power with a tight minority. He reached out to voters by dealing effectively with floods that wreaked havoc in much of eastern Germany and his stance on the Iraq war – he did not want German troops to fight in the war.

What kind of turnout should we expect?

Germany has a tradition of a high voter turnout. In 2002, 79.1 per cent of Germans eligible to vote took part in the election. And in 1998, more than 80 per cent voted.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.