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Dublin: 12 °C Saturday 25 October, 2014

Why you should care about the outcome of the German election today

Spoiler: Because the outcome is so unpredictable, that’s why.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Image: AP Photo/Markus schreiber

AS POLITICAL MISCALCULATIONS go, this one was particularly baffling.

In the run-up to today’s federal elections in Germany, the 66-year-old leader of the SPD party Peer Steinbrück was asked to appear in a feature in a popular magazine.

Accepting was a no-brainer. Out of all the party leaders, Steinbrück is the one politician who realistically had a chance of de-throning Chancellor Angela Merkel as she seeks her third consecutive term in office. He has spent the past few weeks traversing Germany, making appeals to the high number of undecideds to come back to the left-leaning SPD, which dominated German politics during the Cold War but has fallen out of favour in recent years.

With polls showing that the SPD was now in with a better chance of forming a coalition government than it had been in years, Steinbrück was taking every opportunity to get before the electorate with his blunt, straight-talking ways and persuade them to vote for him.

The feature was a regular part of Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) magazine called Sagen Sie jetzt nichts (“Don’t say anything”) where subjects are asked a question and have to respond with a gesture, which is then photographed.

At the shoot, Steinbrück was asked about the fact that he never seemed to get nice nicknames (current favourites include “Peerlusconi” and “problem-peer”). In response, he scowled and stuck up his middle finger at the camera.

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[Pic: SZmagazin/Twitter]

The magazine immediately knew it had a great photograph on its hands. In a blog on its website, SZ said that Steinbruck’s press advisors wanted permission for the photograph to be used to be withdrawn – but inexplicably, Steinbrück gave the go-ahead for it to be used, saying it showed that he has a sense of humour.

The image made the cover of SZ just over one week ago, creating a heated debate about the party leader.

To his critics, it highlighted everything they had ever said about him: he’s brash, doesn’t take advice and doesn’t think things through – a Brian Cowen type with a witty streak. To his supporters, it was classic Steinbrück: it was his own straight-talking opinion, unfiltered by spin doctors or party hacks, from a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

The incident was the election in microcosm: do voters want the predictable, safe leadership of Merkel? Or the straight-shooting ways of Steinbrück?

The country is going to the polls today after what has been an election in which change initially seemed possible but now seems increasingly unlikely.

Instead, the question has switched from whether Steinbrück can take over as Chancellor from Merkel, to exactly which party will be propping up Merkel’s CDU party and give her a third term as leader.

What’s happening today

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An election poster of Angela Merkel photographed through a car window (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Just over 61 million people out of a population of 80.5 million are eligible to vote today as the electorate goes to the polls to decide who will govern the biggest country – and most important economy – in the European Union.

Angela Merkel has been Chancellor for eight years, during which time she has focused on building consensus and pushing Germany to the forefront of solving the European economic meltdown. While her cautious and at times overly-harsh approach has proved divisive, she remains extremely popular – making it perhaps a surprise that the outcome is not so clear cut.

The problem is with Merkel’s junior coalition partners, who have gone through a spectacular Progressive Democrats-style implosion, falling from 15 per cent in the polls to a mere 5 per cent – a danger area, meaning that they could end up with no seats at all in the Bundestag under Germany’s election rules.

If Merkel’s junior coalition partners fail to get past the 5 per cent mark, the most popular – albeit ideologically at odds –  option is a grand coalition between Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and Steinbrück’s Social Democratic Party. Both party leaders have repeatedly said that such a coalition would not be their top choice, but it remains the preferred option for voters.

There has also been speculation about a left-wing coalition, with the SPD bedding down with far-left party Die Linke as well as the Green Party. The SPD leadership has ruled going into government with Die Linke, saying the party is “not fit for government” (ouch) but there remains some popular support for the idea.

What’s the story with the main political parties?

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Supporters of the CDU at a campaign rally this week holding signs supporting Angela Merkel (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

A total of 34 parties are fielding candidates today but just six are represented in the current Bundestag.

Christian Democratic Union -The centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has been in power since 2005 and has focused its campaign on how it has brought Germany through the worst of the economic storm which has battered most of the EU (the party’s campaign slogan is “Germany’s future: in good hands”). The CDU’s main focus is on low taxes, family values and keeping Germany’s economy competitive.

Christian Social Union – The Christian Social Union (CSU) is the Bavarian sister party of the CDU and acts as one with the CDU on a federal level (it has also governed Bavaria for the past 60 years). Together the parties are known as ‘The Union’ in parliament, but the CSU is generally seen as more right-wing, particularly when it come to protecting the so-called traditional family model.

Social Democratic Party – The SPD is the oldest political party in Germany and was hugely successful in the 1970s under leader Willy Brandt. However its support waned in recent years as the party rolled back on some pillars of the welfare state. Steinbrück has moved the party back towards its traditional social-democratic base, promising a national minimum wage and investments in State-run nurseries.

Free Democratic Party – The FDP is traditionally liberal, both economically and socially, favouring free markets and minimal government intervention. The party had its best ever results in the 2009 election, but since then, as so often happens with smaller coalition partners, has seen a massive drop in its poll ratings with voters unhappy with its aggressive policies attacking welfare and calling for tax cuts.

The Greens – The Greens are considered Europe’s most successful environmental party, but have had a disastrous election campaign and are taking a battering in the polls. The party is calling for reform of the healthcare system and a minimum wage, alongside their core Green values, but have seen their ratings drop to 9 per cent from their peak of 28 per cent two years ago. The party was widely mocked for suggesting a vegetarian day in office canteens where meat would be banned.

The Left (Die Linke) – Just six years old, Die Linke was formed out of a backlash against the SPD when the party was seen as betraying its left-wing base. The democratic socialist party is calling for a left-wing approach to economic policy, including a Robin Hood tax on large financial transactions and tax increases for the wealthiest, as well as a nationalised healthcare system and a minimum wage. The party was generally seen as a fringe party, but recent polls show it polling at 10 per cent, above the struggling Greens.

There’s also the wildcard: new anti-EU party Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) is seeking to tap into the resentment among some Germans over having to help fund bailouts for some EU countries – including Ireland, of course –  to win its first seats in parliament. The majority of parties – and voters – support Merkel’s approach to the euro crisis, but AFD is tapping into a small but significant well of support. Polls show it is hovering just below the crucial 5 per cent mark which would see it guaranteed to win seats in the Bundestag.

What are the issues?

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(AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

It’s the economy, stupid: Given all that’s happened over the past five years, it’s no surprise that a recent survey found that social and fiscal policies are the number one consideration for 80 per cent of Germans when deciding which party to vote for.

The parties have fought over whether income tax should be raised for high earners (Merkel says no; the SPD says yes), whether to introduce  a national minimum wage (Germany is one of the few countries in the EU without one), and how to handle Ehegattensplitting – whether married couples should be allowed to combine their salaries and split the total down the middle, paying tax on the average income.

When it comes to Europe’s debt crisis, both the SPD and the Greens have voted for Merkel’s tough love approach whereby stricken countries must agree to a tough timetable of conditions in order to receive a bailout. However the left-wing parties have criticised her for focusing too much on austerity at the expense of economic growth.

The SPD has been outspoken about the recent revelations that National Security Agency in the US carried out surveillance in Germany and other EU countries, with Peer Steinbrück describing it as “the greatest crime against fundamental rights” in Germany’s history. The coalition government has faced repeated questioning about how much it knew about the intelligence gathering on German soil.

One of the more unusual – and divisive – issues which has come up is the suggestion by the leader of the CSU – Merkel’s allies – that foreign cars would be charged to drive on Bavaria’s motorways. The suggestion has been met with derision from other parties and may be ruled inoperable due to EU regulations, but Horst Seehofer, the head of the CSU, has maintained he is deadly serious about it.

Bloomberg notes that the single biggest age group voting is people aged 70 and over, who make up 20.1 per cent of the electorate. At the other end of the scale, around 3 million people will be voting for the first time – which may explain why the SPD has been ramping up its effort in recent days to attract the youth vote.

How does Germany’s electoral system work?

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(AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Germany’s electoral system seems complicated on the outside, mainly because of the way that it was put together. Post-World War II, the federation installed a system of checks and balances leading to its unusual mixture of electoral systems.

Voters get two votes today. Firstly, they cast one ballot to directly vote for a member of the Bundestag in their local district. The second vote is for a particular party.

Half of the Bundestag’s members of parliaments – 299 –  are chosen by the first vote, while the second vote determines how strong each party will be in parliament.

One of the more unusual facts about Germany’s parliament is that the number of seats isn’t fixed. There is a minimum of at least 598 members of parliament, but the exact number fluctuates after each election because of what are known as “overhang” seats. This means if a party wins more of the directly elected seats in one of the federal states than it would get under the proportional allocation from the second ballots cast by voters, it gets compensatory seats to ensure the party is represented accurately. (The outgoing parliament has 620 members because of this rule).

There is also a 5 per cent rule, which, depending on who you listen to, was designed either to ensure that smaller parties would be represented in parliament or else to keep fringe groups out of politics. Basically, if any party gets at least 5 per cent of the vote, it gets seats in the Bundestag (even if it doesn’t win any of the directly-chosen seats).

Even though Merkel’s CDU/CSU union has a massive lead in the polls, it is extremely unlikely that she will get the majority she needs to govern. One party – or, as has been the case for the past five decades, two or more parties – have to get a majority of seats in order to claim victory.

As with many western European democracies, voters don’t directly elect the chancellor. Parties need an absolute majority to elect a chancellor – half of all the lower house seats plus one.

Why it matters

The outcome of the election will “set the agenda for our part of the world”, as The Guardian said this week. If the SPD does get into power with Merkel, it’s likely that there could be some rethinking of austerity as the chosen path to get the bailed-out countries – including Ireland – back on track. It’s unlikely that the ship would be turned around completely but it would kickstart a debate on the future path of the post-bailout Europe.

And speaking of bailouts, the success or failure of anti-EU party AFD will be something to watch today to gauge sentiment among people in Germany towards the worse-off countries across Europe. If the party breaks the magical 5 per cent barrier then it will be guaranteed representation in the Bundestag.

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(AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Recent opinion polls show Merkel’s CDU with a steady lead at 38 per cent, followed by the SPD on 28 per cent. Die Linke has 10 per cent, Greens are on 8 per cent and the FDP is at 6 per cent, as is the AFD.

Polls close at 6pm local time and a result will be expected within hours. Party leaders will meet tomorrow to start talking about forming a coalition.

Read: Leader of Green Party in Germany regrets 1980s ‘paedophile pamphlet’ >

Read: This 100-year-old Berlin dance hall holds ghosts of German history >

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