To become a member of the German parliament, the Bundestag, one either has to be directly elected to represent a constituency, or one has to be on a party list. Let me explain.On Election Day, Germans cast two votes, one for a particular candidate, and the other for a party. The first vote elects 50% of the members of the Bundestag – 299 out of a total of 598 parliamentarians – who directly represent constituencies. The second vote is cast for parties. The electorate therefore has the chance to elect the person who represents them in the parliament (the first vote), and the party that they would like to become strong(er) in the parliament (the second vote).
In theory, one could vote for a candidate that one likes with the first vote – irrespective of the party – and the party whose programmes one finds the most appealing with the second. But in fact, because of the extremely boring nature of German electoral politics, many people do not know the candidates they are voting for, just the parties. It is therefore very common for people to simply mention the names of the parties they are going to vote for. Even if they do not know the candidates they are voting for, they know the parties quite well.
The 598 seats of the parliament are then allocated according to the results of the second votes. While deciding those who end up in the parliament, each party would get the number of seats that represent the percentage it gets in the second votes (the ones for parties). Those who are elected directly by the first vote become members of the parliament; the remaining seats due to the party from the percentage of the votes it got are distributed to candidates according to their place on the party list. The list would have been constituted before the elections. Those who are high on the list will join those who are directly elected as deputies by the electorate to represent the party in the Bundestag. However, in order for a party to have the right to get some of those remaining seats that are not directly elected, it has to have at least 5% of the total votes cast during the general elections. This way, no fringe parties can be part of the parliament. (Don’t worry if your head is swimming from reading this, many Germans don’t understand how it works).
A party needs to have a certain majority before it can form a government. What has happened in last week’s elections is that the classical liberal and pro-business FDP has increased its percentage, while the socialist-leaning SPD has seen its percentage reduced. One way to see this – and many commentators have described it in these terms – is that it is a win for neo-liberal policies, especially since current chancellor Ms Merkel’s liberal conservative CDU can now form a government with a coalition that is closer to the ideals of the CDU. The last elections (2004) resulted in the two largest parties – the CDU and the SPD – forming government, with the SPD as the junior partner in the coalition. It was an uncomfortable coalition, one that saw the CDU, a centre right party, in a coalition with the SPD, a centre left party.
Many commentators have also said that it shows that people are turning against socialist parties. I do not think so. The poor showing of the SPD is partly due to the fact that the party needs to get its acts together. Reports of in-fighting, and the fact that it has a lacklustre, boring and bored-looking (now former) leader, Mr Frank-Walter Steinmeier, certainly did not help things. One other reason is that Germany’s response to the global financial crisis, which is attributed to Ms Merkel’s CDU, has had some positive results. The party campaigned on this, asking the electorate to vote for FDP so that the pro-business party can have enough seats in the parliament to join the CDU in a centre right coalition.
The electorate has done that, and Ms Merkel has the coalition she wants. My leftist friends say they are happy because it will quicken the class war; my pro-business friends say they are happy because Germany can now carry out reforms that it badly needs. Let’s wait and see who will be disappointed.
Someday, we will be able to do this kind of analysis for Nigerian elections.