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How Germany's complex electoral system could cause problems for Angela Merkel

Germany has a few unique quirks to its electoral system that could force Merkel into a difficult coalition.

French Prime Minister Philippe visits German Chancellor Merkel Source: Bernd von Jutrczenka via PA Images

IF POPULAR CHANCELLOR Angela Merkel faced a US presidential-style vote, she would almost certainly win by a landslide – but things are not so simple under Germany’s complex election system.

In the end, her conservatives may be forced into torturous coalition haggling, possibly with their biggest campaign rivals, to stay in power and secure Merkel a fourth term.

The reason is post-war Germany’s election system, which mixes the “winner-takes-all” approach of Britain and the United States with the proportional representation system that allows for more small parties.

The simple facts

CDU election campaign with German Chancellor Merkel German Chancellor Angela Merkel takes pictures with Syrian refugees at a campaign event. Source: Daniel Reinhardt via PA Images

A total of 61.5 million people over the age of 18 are eligible to vote to elect the next government of the European Union’s most populous nation and biggest economy. Women voters outnumber men by 31.7 million to 29.8 million.

Voter participation from four years ago stood at 71.5%, up slightly from 2009 and higher than in many other Western democracies.

When German voters enter the polling booth, they make two crosses on the ballot paper – one for a direct representative in their local district, the other for their preferred political party.

Five percent hurdle

German chancellor Merkel on the campaign trail in Freiburg Angela Merkel holds up a carrot at an election campaign event. Source: DPA/PA Images

The first vote is meant to ensure that each of Germany’s 299 districts is represented in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament (the equivalent to the Dáil).

In the second – and in many ways crucial – vote, citizens make a cross for a party.

Ahead of election day, the parties write-up their “candidate lists” in each of the 16 states. The names at the top have the biggest chance of getting a seat.

The party with the most votes then gets to send the most lawmakers to the lower house.

For example, if a party scores three direct seats through the first vote but is eligible for 10 seats through the second vote, seven more names on the party’s state list are also given seats.

A complication arises when the direct and party votes are out of balance because voters “split” their ballot between two different party leaders (that would be like voting for Leo Varadkar in the first column, and Fianna Fáil in the second, for example).

When a party earns more direct seats than it is entitled to by its share of the party vote, it is granted the extra seats anyway. These are called “overhang” seats.

As a result, the size of the Bundestag can blow out far beyond its minimum size of 598 seats. After the 2013 election, the chamber had 630 lawmakers and this could swell even larger.

Another rule says that parties which score below 5% of the party vote stay out of parliament altogether. This is meant to prevent excessive political fragmentation and stop potentially extremist parties.

Both the pro-business Free Democrats and the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany are expected to win seats this time after falling short of the bar in 2013.

Once polling booths close today at 4pm (or 5pm Irish time), the question will be whether any alliance of parties has an absolute majority to elect a chancellor – half of all the lower house seats plus one.

Here’s what the results were in 2013:

  • Christian Democratic Union (CDU) / Christian Social Union (CSU): 41.5%, 309 seats
  • Social Democratic Party (SPD): 25.7%, 193 seats
  • Die Linke: 8.6%, 64 seats
  • Greens: 8.4%, 63 seats
  • Free Democrats (FDP): 4.8%, 0 seats
  • Alternative for Germany (AfD): 4.7%, 0 seats
  • Plus 1 independent MP.

© AFP 2017

Read: Merkel on course for crushing election victory after rival ‘hardly able to land a punch’ in debate

Read: A debate today is Merkel’s opponent’s ‘last chance’ to attract voters in German elections

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