If you’re not sick of elections yet …

Most Australians have probably had enough of election-watching for a while. Which is a pity, because it’s just two weeks to go until what’s probably the most important election of the year. Germany goes to the polls on 22 September to elect a new federal parliament and determine the fate of Angela Merkel’s conservative/liberal coalition government.

Merkel has been chancellor for eight years, the first four in a grand coalition with the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) after her own Christian Democrats (CDU) fell well short of a majority at the 2005 election. In 2009, however, the CDU and its preferred coalition partner, the Liberals (FDP), won a majority between them, with 239 and 93 seats respectively. They have governed together ever since.

On the surface, the government’s prospects look good. You can follow the opinion polling at this handy German site, summarised in English at Wikipedia. It’s been remarkably consistent; the CDU has been hovering around 40% for most of the year, more than 10% ahead of the SPD and clearly if narrowly ahead of the combined SPD/Greens vote.

To understand why this might not be enough, you need to understand something of the German electoral system, which in my humble opinion is one of the best in the world (New Zealand’s is a very close relative). Germans vote in single-member constituencies, electing their local MP on a first-past-the-post basis, but those votes do not determine the party composition of parliament. Instead everyone gets a second vote, for a party list, and candidates from those lists are added to parliament to produce, together with the constituency MPs, an overall proportional result.

Proportionality is based on a Sainte-Laguë method, with a 5% threshold. So calculating the numbers in parliament is easy; you just ignore all the parties with less than 5% of the vote (unless they win three or more constituency seats, which won’t be an issue this time) and allocate seats proportionately among the rest.

The problem here is that 5% is an arbitrary figure, and it matters enormously whether a party falls just below or just above it.

In 2005 I was able to say confidently in an article that “There are five parties that will be represented in the new German parliament.” But this time there are only four for certain (the CDU, the SPD, the Greens and the Left); the FDP has been consistently polling at or very close to the 5% mark, and if it misses out that spells trouble for Merkel’s government.

Take, for example, the most recent poll shown on the Wahlrecht site, an Emnid poll released yesterday. On my calculation, it would give the CDU and FDP together exactly half the seats (266 and 33 respectively).* Since the opposing SPD/Greens/Left combination is less likely to be able to work together – coalition with the Left is still slightly taboo, although less so than four years ago – that would give Merkel a strong claim to continue in office.

But if the FDP dips just below the threshold, then the numbers would be CDU 282, SPD 176, Greens 77 and Left 63. A CDU minority government would be unworkable; Merkel would be unable to carry on unless she could either assemble another grand coalition or induce the Greens to switch sides. More likely there would be an SPD/Greens government with at least the tacit support of the Left.

Of course, those numbers could change over the next two weeks – they did quite spectacularly in 2005. But the polling has been so consistent that unless there is some entirely unexpected event it seems likely that the result will be pretty close to one of those two options: either the FDP scrapes in and the current government survives, or it just misses out and a centre-left coalition takes power.

Either way, it’s going to be interesting, and the post-election manoeuvring could be the most interesting part. I’ll be in Germany for election day and a few days following, so I’ll be able to provide updates on what’s happening.

Finally, spare a thought for what would happen if we had such a democratic system in Australia. On the latest House of Representatives figures, the Coalition would have wound up with just 73 of the 150 seats. Labor would have 54 seats, the Greens 14 and Clive Palmer nine. (Late counting may change the picture slightly, but not much.)

That would place a very different political construction on the same underlying support. In Australia we’re used to the idea that a party wins a big majority with only 46% of the vote, but other parts of the democratic world don’t all see things the same way.


* Note for purists: this is based on a parliament of 598, half constituency seats and half list seats. In practice there are usually more list seats required to outweigh the disproportionality in the constituency seats; these are known as “overhang” seats. In the current parliament there are 24 of them.



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