Everything You Need to Know About the Election in Germany

A guide to the German electoral system, the parties, their leaders and the most important issues.

The Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany
The Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany (Pixabay)

Federal elections will be held in Germany on September 24. Here is everything you need to know about them.

Bottom lines

  • Angela Merkel is almost certain to remain chancellor. The question is, who will join her Christian Democrats in a coalition?
  • The liberal Free Democrats are expected to reenter parliament and would be the Christian Democrats’ first choice. Their economic and fiscal policies overlap. Such a coalition would make Germany a little more Euroskeptic.
  • The Social Democrats are polling in second place, but the combined left is unlikely to win a majority.
  • The far-right Alternative for Germany is projected to win seats for the first time, but it is ignored by the other parties.

The German electoral system

Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a speech in the German parliament in Berlin, October 15, 2015
Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a speech in the German parliament in Berlin, October 15, 2015 (Bundesregierung)

Germans cast two votes: one for a candidate and one for a party.

The country is divided up into 299 electoral districts. Whoever wins the most votes in a given district wins a seat in the Bundestag. The rest of the seats are filled up reflecting the party preferences of the overall electorate.

At a minimum, the Bundestag has 598 members. This can be increased to achieve the right proportions.

No single party has ever won a majority, but usually two parties are enough to form a coalition government. An election threshold of 5 percent discourages radicalization.

Turnout has fallen from 90+ percent in the 1970s to around 70 percent in the last few elections. Turnout is often lower in the provinces that used to comprise communist East Germany.

The German upper chamber, the Bundesrat, is technically not an upper chamber but acts similar to one. Its members are not elected but appointed by Germany’s sixteen state governments. As a result, fringe parties have even less chance of winning seats there.

The last four years

German economy minister Sigmar Gabriel and Chancellor Angela Merkel are seen walking to a news conference in Berlin, June 29, 2015
German economy minister Sigmar Gabriel and Chancellor Angela Merkel are seen walking to a news conference in Berlin, June 29, 2015 (Bundesregierung)

Merkel almost won an absolute majority of 311 out of 631 seats in the 2013 election, but the Free Democrats, with whom she had ruled since 2009, fell under the 5-percent threshold. The Greens were unwilling to govern with the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats were unwilling to govern with the far left, so a left-right “grand coalition” was formed.

Merkel’s first government, from 2005 to 2009, was also a grand coalition. It ended disastrously for the Social Democrats, who went down from 34 to 23 percent support.

In return for their support this time, the Social Democrats negotiated a national minimum wage, restrictions on temporary work contracts, early pensions for blue-collar workers and dual citizenship for the children of immigrations.

Merkel resisted Social Democratic demands for higher taxes, keeping the focus on achieving a balanced budget through spending restraint. This has come at the cost of underinvestment in infrastructure and schools.

The biggest test of Merkel’s chancellorship came in 2015, when around one million immigrants arrived in Germany. Merkel surprised her conservative base with an open-arms policy, insisting that Germany could “manage”.

Reactionary voters were not convinced and local officials were overwhelmed by the number of people.

Merkel eventually made concessions. She reinstated border controls, froze family reunifications and made it easier for judges to deport asylum seekers found guilty of a crime. She also made a controversial deal with Turkey to restrict the movement of refugees from Syria.

Key issues

  • Spending and taxes: There is now a surplus. The question is what to do with it? Right-wing parties want to use the money to fund tax cuts. The left would raise taxes on the wealthy and put more money into infrastructure, hospitals and schools.
  • Defense: The Christian Democrats and Free Democrats want to meet NATO’s 2-percent defense spending target or go above it. The Social Democrats and Greens want to keep spending where it is (1.2 percent of GDP). Die Linke would replace NATO with a European security pact that includes Russia.
  • Europe: All mainstream parties favor closer European integration, but the left is more ambitious. The Social Democrats want a European finance minister, tax harmonization and a “social union” to ensure common welfare standards. This goes too far for the Christian Democrats, but they back the formation of a European Monetary Fund (perhaps replacing the European Stability Mechanism). This, in turn, may be a bridge too far for the Free Democrats, who call for enforceable fiscal rules. The Alternative wants out of the euro altogether.
  • Immigration: Merkel has resisted demands from the Christian Democratic right for an annual immigration cap of 200,000. The Alternative has made this its policy. The Free Democrats and Social Democrats argue for a Canadian-style points system to attract more high-skilled migrants. The Greens and Die Linke oppose restrictions on refugees.

The parties and their leaders

  • Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats are the largest party. They are technically two parties: the Christian Social Union in Bavaria and the Christian Democratic Union in the rest of Germany. The former is a bit more reactionary than the latter, but the two always group together in the national parliament. “The Union”, as the Germans call it is more centrist than right-wing: its views on abortion, gay rights, immigration and law and order are more liberal than those of America’s Republicans, for example. The party shifted to a more free-market economic policy in the 1980s, but it still believes in the “social market economy”, which emphasizes cooperation between employers, workers and the state.
  • The Social Democrats, led by former European Parliament chief Martin Schulz, historically vied with the Christian Democrats for first place. In the last decade, however, they have struggled to win more than a third of the votes. Their heartland is the industrial west and northwest of Germany. Once a workers’ party, the Social Democrats are now more middle-class. As a result, their emphasis has shifted from economic to social-justice issues.
  • The Free Democratic Party, led by Christian Lindner, would be called “libertarian” in the United States. It champions economic and individual liberty. The party often held the balance of power in postwar parliaments and most of the time opted to support Christian Democratic chancellors. It fell under the 5-percent election threshold in 2013 but is expected to make a comeback.
  • Alliance 90/The Greens, led by Cem Özdemir and Simone Peter, is a left-wing environmentalist party. Once considered far left, it has become more mainstream in recent decades. From 1998 to 2005, the Greens governed in a coalition with the Social Democrats. Their focus is on climate change, renewable energy, gender equality and minority rights.
  • Die Linke is a merger of the former ruling socialist party of East Germany and the West German far left. It still gets most of its support from the east. The party calls for huge increases in taxes and public spending to eventually overcome capitalism. It wants Germany to leave NATO, is skeptical of the EU and more sympathetic of Russia than the United States.
  • The Alternative for Germany was formed in 2013 as a libertarian anti-euro party but has since become a typical European nativist party, comparable to France’s National Front. It seeks to leave the euro, reinvigorate Germans’ sense of patriotism and restore family values. The party denies climate change.

About the polls

Opinion polls are usually reliable. German voters aren’t quick to change their minds.

Surveys point to a comfortable victory for the Christian Democrats with around 40 percent support, followed by the Social Democrats at 25 percent. The latter briefly surged in early 2017, when they named Schulz as their leader, but they are now back where they started.

The Christian Democrats lost some support in the summer of 2015, when right-wing voters, dissatisfied with how Merkel handled the refugee crisis, gave the Alternative a serious look. Around half of the voters who told pollsters they would switch then have since come back. The other half remains with the Alternative.

The Free Democrats crossed the 5-percent threshold in the polls in early 2016 and have stayed there, probably helped by the transformation of the Alternative from an anti-euro into an anti-immigrant party.

Support for the Greens and Die Linke has been pretty stable for the last four years.

Possible coalitions

The polls suggest four coalitions are possible:

  1. Another grand coalition. This would be the least disruptive option, but the Social Democrats are not eager. Every time they support a Merkel government, they come out less popular than they were going in.
  2. Center-right: The Free Democrats share many of the Christian Democrats’ tax and spending policies, however, they are more skeptical of a grand bargain in Europe that would give Germany closer economic integration in return for debt and deficit relief for the southern member states. If the two win a majority between them, this is nevertheless the likeliest outcome.
  3. Center-left: A coalition with the Greens may be feasible, although their economic and foreign policies are (far) to Merkel’s left. Conservatives would oppose a return to an open-door immigration policy. The advantage is that this government would face opposition from the left (Social Democrats and Die Linke) as well as the right (Free Democrats and the Alternative), thus occupying the center ground — which is where Merkel wants to be.
  4. Jamaica coalition: (the colors of the Christian Democrats, Free Democrats and Greens give you Jamaica’s flag) Possible if neither the Free Democrats nor Greens could give Merkel a majority on their own and the Social Democrats refuse to form another grand coalition. But this is nobody’s first choice.