Here's What You Need To Know About Germany's Election

Sep 21, 2017

In these uncertain times, the international community has looked increasingly to Germany and its experienced, long-serving chancellor, for leadership.

That leader, Angela Merkel, looks set to return to office for her fourth term when Germans go to the polls on Sunday.

But even if she does, there's no guarantee it will be business as usual. Governments in Germany are most commonly formed as coalitions, and for now, it's unclear what the country's next coalition will end up looking like — and how that will affect Germany's global role.

How it works

Germany's electoral system uses both a direct and proportional voting model; as a result, each voter casts two ballots. The first vote is for a local representative, determined by a winner-takes-all system. The second vote is for a political party, which is awarded seats according to its percentage of the results.

Half of the seats in the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany's parliament, go to the local representatives, the other half goes to representatives from the party lists. Parties must win a minimum of three constituencies in the first vote, or 5 percent of the second vote to enter parliament at all.

Who's who

In this election, seven parties are likely to enter the Bundestag:

  • Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which traditionally form an alliance.

  • The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which currently governs with Merkel's conservatives; their candidate is Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament.
  • The libertarian Free Democratic Party (FDP), which is typically the natural junior coalition partner to the Christian Democrat/Christian Social Union, but did not clear the 5 percent hurdle during the last federal elections in 2013.
  • The Left (Die Linke), a party made up of successors to East Germany's Communist Party and former Social Democrats who broke from their party when former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder introduced his social welfare and labor reforms.
  • The Greens (Die Gruenen), the party that governed with the Social Democrats from 1998 to 2005. Their polling figures are currently lower than in previous years.
  • The right-wing, populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which is gaining ground with its anti-immigration agenda and is expected to enter the federal parliament for the first time.

What's at stake

In terms of foreign policy, Merkel has committed to increasing military spending to 2 percent of GDP — to meet NATO goals (and demands by President Trump) — but the Social Democrats' Schulz, the Greens and the Left oppose it. On Turkey, both Merkel and Schulz agree that EU accession talks should be put on hold as long as Erdogan tightens his autocratic grip. On Russia, the Free Democrats recently floated accepting Moscow's annexation of Crimea as a "permanent provisional arrangement" and some in the Social Democrats support lifting some sanctions, but Merkel remains tough with Putin about Ukraine. On U.S. relations, Martin Schulz has not minced his words about Trump, calling him the "destroyer of all Western values." In Merkel's Christian Democrats' campaign manifesto, the United States is no longer referred to as a "friend," but as a mere "partner."

On domestic policy, the exchange between Merkel and Schulz during their only televised debate revealed few major differences between the conservative bloc and Social Democrats. The debate between the smaller parties was a much livelier affair. The Left wants to abolish NATO and Germany's intelligence services, while the libertarian Free Democrats want to centralize the spy agencies and lower taxes. The Greens want to close Germany's coal power plants and ban the combustion engine by 2030. The nationalist Alternative for Germany wants to leave the euro (but not the EU) and ban minarets.

Small as they are, these parties' positions are relevant for Merkel: If she gets the most votes, as predicted, they could make or break a coalition.

Possible outcomes

The current "grand coalition" between the conservatives — the Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union — and the Social Democrats holds 80 percent of seats in the Bundestag; the remaining seats belong to two opposition parties, the Left and the Greens.

If Merkel returns to office, she will likely do so with a reduced majority, and she could form a government with a number of parties. There could well be a continuation of the current coalition — Merkel has worked with the Social Democrats for two of her three terms. The business-friendly libertarian Free Democrats and the Merkel-led conservatives have also ruled together in the past, but it's less certain this combination will receive a large enough majority to govern.

That's why some are floating the idea of a three-way coalition between Merkel's conservatives, the Free Democrats and the Greens. There is also talk about some in Merkel's party who would prefer to work alone with the Greens, but it's unlikely they'll get enough votes.

The one party that doesn't figure into any of the outcomes is the AfD — because all of the other parties have refused to form a coalition with it. The right-wing party's presence will be felt in the Bundestag, though, with polls predicting it may become the third-strongest party in terms of voter share.

Exit poll projections will be released on Sunday as polling stations close. An official, if provisional, result is expected during the course of the evening. But the work starts on Monday morning, when coalition negotiations begin.

Those eager for a quick resolution may have to wait: After Germany's last election in 2013, it took the current ruling parties until mid-December to form a government, and it was not the first time they had worked together during Merkel's tenure.

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