Explainer

German Election Guide

The German electoral system, the parties, issues, polls and possible coalitions.

German parliament Berlin
The Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany (Unsplash/Fionn Große)

Germans elect a new Bundestag on Sunday, which will elect Angela Merkel’s successor. It is the first time in postwar German history that a sitting chancellor isn’t seeking reelection.

If the polls are right, Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats will lose power to the center-left Social Democrats for the first time since 2005.

Here is everything you need to know.

Bottom lines

  • The Social Democrats (SPD) are projected to overtake the Christian Democrats as the largest party.
  • Their preferred coalition partners are the Greens, but they will likely need a third party for a majority: either the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) or socialist The Left.
  • An SPD-led coalition would align more closely with Italy, France and Spain on economic and political integration in the EU, but spend less on defense.

Electoral system

Around sixty million Germans are eligible to vote. A third are expected to vote by mail, up from the previous record of 29 percent in 2017. Turnout has fallen from 90+ percent in the 1970s to between 70 and 80 percent in recent elections, in part due to low turnout in the formerly communist East Germany.

Germans cast two votes: one for a candidate and one for a party. A simple plurality is required to win in one of the country’s 299 electoral districts. Seats are added to the Bundestag and filled with candidates from general party lists according to the second votes. Because most districts are won by either a Christian or a Social Democrat, hundreds of additional seats usually need to be added to reflect the party preferences of the overall electorate. Currently there are 709 lawmakers, making Germany’s the fifth-largest parliament in the world.

Representatives of Germany’s sixteen states form the upper house, or Bundesrat.

Parties

53 parties are competing in the election, out of which six are projected to cross the 5-percent electoral threshold. (Counting the “Union” of the Christian Democratic Union, which competes in fifteen states, and the Christian Social Union of Bavaria as one.)

Party

Ideology

Seats

Polls

Union Christian democratic 245 162-182
SPD Social democratic 152 186-227
AfD Nationalist 87 86-100
FDP Liberal 80 91-113
Left Socialist 69 50-57
Greens Ecologist 67 131-148

Issues

Key issues in this election include:

  • Budget and taxes: Left-wing parties would raise taxes and relax Germany’s debt brake (limiting structural deficits to .35 percent of economic output) to finance investments. The Union and FDP oppose higher taxes and more debt.
  • Climate and energy: The Union and SPD argue the outgoing coalition’s policies are enough to bring greenhouse gas emissions down to 1990 levels by 2045. The Greens want to go further. The Free Democrats have more faith in innovation.
  • Defense: The Union and FDP want to meet NATO’s 2-percent spending target. Left-wing parties prefer to spend more on foreign aid.
  • Digitalization: All parties call for investments in digitalization with the Christian Democrats setting a goal of nationwide 5G by 2025.
  • Economy and business: All parties want to encourage business creation, but where the Union would give startups a “bureaucracy-free” first year, the Greens believe the solution is more government financing. The liberals want to do both.
  • Europe: The four mainstream parties support deeper European integration, although the Christian Democrats and FDP are wary of “transfer union”. The Christian Democrats and Greens would switch to majority voting in EU foreign policy. The FDP is against EU taxes.
  • Housing: The SPD and Greens seek to rein in high costs with price controls or a rent cap. The Union and FDP call for more home construction, including by relaxing planning laws.
  • Migration: The SPD, Greens and FDP would switch to a Canadian-style points-based system to encourage more skilled immigration over family reunification.
  • Mobility: All mainstream parties want to encourage Germans to buy more electric cars and travel more often by rail than air, but the Greens are by far the most aggressive. The Union and FDP oppose banning diesel cars and reducing speed limits.
  • Russia: The Union, SPD and Left are relatively Russia-friendly and support the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The Greens and FDP are more hawkish.

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Polls

  • The Greens polled in the first place in April and May but have been marred by questions about the competence of their leader, Annalena Baerbock, and their stigma as a Verbotspartei: a party that wants to ban diesel cars, domestic flights and single-family homes in high-cost neighborhoods.
  • The Union dropped from a 40-percent high in the polls after they nominated the uninspiring Armin Laschet to succeed Merkel.
  • The FDP has benefited from the Union’s collapse, but the SPD have gained even more. They can lure away voters from the Union as well as the Greens. Their candidate, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, is considered a safe pair of hands.

German polls are usually reliable. In the last election, pollsters’ final figures were less than 2 points away from the election results.

Possible coalitions

  • SPD + Greens + FDP: Risky for the FDP, who would face opposition from the center- as well as far right, and difficult policy-wise on budget, business, climate and housing policy.
  • SPD + Greens + Left: Risky for SPD and Greens, who want to appear moderate, and difficult on defense and foreign relations.
  • SPD + Greens: A minority government, possibly with a confidence-and-supply deal with The Left. Unprecedented in postwar German history, but similar coalitions rule in Spain and Sweden.
  • Union + Greens + FDP: Failed in 2017, when the liberals balked. Could be a modernizing, pro-EU government that seeks technological solutions to the climate crisis.
  • Union + SPD: Another “grand coalition” would barely muster a majority and neither party wants one.
  • Union + SPD + Greens: The muddling-through option. Unattractive to all three parties.

No other party wants to govern with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The combination SPD and Greens is the favorite with 15 to 17 percent support in recent surveys. A three-party coalition with The Left gets 7 to 10 percent support.

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