German Pride in its Grundgesetz
Germany has a strong constitution; it could even be considered “as a moral and political beacon”:1
“The creation of West Germany’s post-war political architecture is one of the great triumphs of liberal democracy. The British played their part in that. They helped devise a constitution (das Grundgesetz) so successful that it is cited by Germans as their object of greatest pride.”2Why the Germans Do it Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country by John Kampfner
This year Germany held a General Election on Sunday 26 September for the 20th Electoral Term since 1949. For the voter, the election is a key part in the management of political life, all outlined in the codified constitution, known as the Basic Law, the Grundgesetz. The Grundgesetz has been the most important source of national pride over decades.
This election is particularly noteworthy, because it marked the end of the Merkel era and resulted in a new Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, being announced on 8 December, but the election process took nearly two and half months.
The German population accept their election process is necessarily lengthier, because it involves inter-party discussions, which must lead to stable government for the coming years. For the British observer, though, that seems far too long. Or is it? How come there is such a long period of time, compared to UK elections, between an election and the forming of a new government?
Here is an overview and insight into the election process.
The German System of Government
Germany is a democratic, federal parliamentary republic. Federal legislative power is vested in the Bundestag (the parliament of Germany, the lower house) and the Bundesrat (the representative body of the Länder, Germany’s regional states, the upper house). The Bundestag is the supreme constitutional state organ, directly elected by the people. It meets in the renovated Reichstag building in Berlin.
The people – the sovereign body – lend their power to Parliament for a term of four years, initiated by the Bundestagswahl (the “General” election). The Bundestag in turn elects the Chancellor (Bundeskanzler if a male, or Bundeskanzlerin if a female), who is the head of the Government.
As one would expect in a parliamentary democracy, state authority, the division of powers, is exercised by the triad of legislature, judiciary and executive, each checking and balancing the others.
The Bundestag is the legislature. The Chancellor is the head of the executive, of the Government. Scrutiny over the Government is exercised by the Bundestag.
The Bundestag elects half the judges for the constitutional court (Verfassungsgericht) and the Bundesrat elects the other half. The judges for five other supreme federal courts are elected by judges from the regions together with some voting from the Bundestag.
Note: in the UK the Queen appoints judges on the advice of the current prime minister.
The German Election Process
From the age of 18 every German citizen whose domicile is in Germany can register to vote in Federal elections (Bundestagswahlen), and from the age of 16 in State elections (Landtagswahlen).
Germany has a tradition of regional government, now based on sixteen Länder (see map). Federal elections are held every four years while State elections every five years.
When delving any deeper, a complex variety of State voting systems becomes evident. This table (German) summarises the regional variation of the systems across the country.
Elections are all Fixed Term, bringing certainty, method and stability to the system; it prevents manipulating dates to fit in with positive moments for the ruling, governing party.
It does mean there is more focus on content, rather than on short term spin, as in Britain. Preparations for a national election (English)also have a set timetable, beginning 3 months before the date set for the election, which is always a Sunday and tends to be in late September or early October.
Election Campaigning Never Stops
Of course, as in Britain, indirect campaigning can begin up to 6 months in advance. This year there was early excitement on 19 April when the Green Party elected Annalena Baerbock, the first ever Green Party candidate for the Office of Chancellor – and the first woman. The CDU was also going through the drawn-out, painful throes of deciding on its candidate for Chancellor in the Spring.
Of greater consideration for the National Parliament, and particularly for the Government, is what happens in the regional elections of the states. Within any 4-year national period of government, there could be around 12 state elections (remember they occur every 5 years).
Voters will be strongly influenced by national politics in the media and this will have a strong bearing on their choice for the direct and proportional vote at a State level.
Thus, it is in the interest of national politicians constantly to be aware of their image, in order to lend benefit to their Party at the regional level. So, the more reasonable the politics of each party across the country, at all times, the more credibility and trust they gain for the next election, be it regional or national. Dates are set and updated in advance for the next five years (German).
Two Votes at Each Election: Not Complex at All
For the Bundestag elections, each voter has two votes: the first is a direct vote for a named person in the constituency and the second is for a political party in the Land or Federal State. The ballot paper is long and can have up to about 26 entries for the Party vote on the right-hand side. Here is an example, from 221: München-Land (German).
The Federal Republic is divided into 299 constituencies, from Flensburg (near Denmark) to Homburg (in the Saarland). The first vote (die Erst-Stimme) goes for the person they wish to be their personal representative in Berlin, the Direktmandat; in effect, the FPTP candidate, exactly like MPs in Britain.
What determines the balance of power between parties in the Bundestag is the second vote (die Zweit-Stimme). This vote is known as the personalised proportional vote and determines which party or coalition will win enough members to elect a member for Chancellor.
Seats Allocated by Proportional Representation
Seats in the Bundestag are distributed proportionally according to the number of votes cast for the various parties nationally and are allocated to the candidates on the party list in the State concerned, in the order in which they are listed. Parties must win at least 5% of the national vote in order to enter the Bundestag.
The recent election for the 20th Electoral Term (since 1949) was held on Sunday 26 September. As a result, there are 736 MPs (Abgeordnete). How? you may ask. With 299 direct candidates, that means that there are an extra 138, in addition to the 299 allocated by proportionality. Enter the concepts of “overhang” and “balance” mandates!
Overhang and Balance
Overhang mandates occur when the number of constituency seats won by a party in a particular Land exceeds the number of seats to which it would be entitled on the strength of the second vote. Balance mandates are designed to ensure that the ultimate distribution of seats accurately reflects the proportional distribution of the second votes.
Germany has a bigger population than the United Kingdom, and the number of voters in each constituency is higher:
|Total Population||Voters Registered||N0. of Constituencies||Average Voters per Constituency||Turnout At Last Election|
|Germany||84 174 831||60 400 000||299||202 006||76.6%|
|UK||68 407 231||47 600 000||650||73 230||67.3%|
Whilst the German system seems much more complex than the first-past-the-post system that prevails for the UK Parliament, the enthusiasm for voting in Germany exceeds that in this country!
This democratic structure and the election process are of great importance to all Germans, because they can, and do, rely upon it entirely, to ensure the very smooth running of the state apparatus at all times. It’s all there, in the Grundgesetz, to resort to, should serious crises arise. The “rule of Law” is taken as seriously as it should be here.
For a deeper insight, the booklet Facts | The Bundestag at a glance (btg-bestellservice.de) is very readable and gives a very full, clear picture of all aspects of the Parliament and the German election process.
Children Taught to have Pride in the Grundgesetz
Furthermore, to encourage children to engage with democracy, the Federal Agency for Civic Education (English) has produced a Guide to the Elections for children (German)… enter the world of HanisauLand to see how children can discover the adult world of politics.
The question asked at the beginning of this article, about the length of time it takes to form a new federal government of Germany has still not been answered. That period of time has been taken up with negotiations between the parties in order to form a viable coalition.
That will be the subject of a forthcoming article about the current parties in Germany, and how coalitions can be formed.
- Why the Germans Do it Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country by John Kampfner; PB, pp.5-6; references also to pp.1 and 31