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Monday, 23 September 2013

Elections, German Style ...

It is very interesting watching the election here, not least because the outcome gives a very clear mandate and 'majority' to Frau Angela Merkel's CDU/CSU party (the Christian Social Union is essentially the Bavarian version of the Christian Democratic Union everywhere else) but it still does not, under the German voting system, give her a majority in the Bundestag. There are 606 'seats' (this isn't 'fixed' as it can increase if the 'directly elected' number is over the 299) in the Bundestag (Federal Parliament) and to have a majority and rule on its own, a party must win 304 of them, but it certainly isn't as easy a calculation as it looks.

The German electoral system is a mix of 'first past the post' and proportional representation, with roughly half the seats being directly elected, and the other half coming from the Party lists. Now come the complications. Each voter has two (2) votes, one for a candidate (sometimes more than one 'direct' vote for several candidates) and one for the Party of choice. It is not unusual for people to vote for a candidate from one Party and then cast the second vote for another Party. Add to this the Constitutional requirement that, to appoint anyone to the seventeen Landestags or the Bundestag, a Party MUST poll a minimum of 5% of the vote. This is a qualification introduced to prevent the sort of situation that arose during the Weimar Republic where the fragmentation of Parties meant that literally dozens of competing Parties had seats and could paralyse the proceedings - leading directly to the situation in which the Nazis were able to first, disrupt the Bundestag and force a new election, then to seize power.

There are currently seven Parties in German politics, the CDU and their sister CSU, the SPD (the oldest political party in Germany, founded in 1848 and 'Socialist' in flavour), the FDP or Free Democratic Party (Liberal), the Reunion 90-Green Party (Reunion Party from the former GDR joined to the Green Party), Die Linke (the former Communist East German Party), the National Democratic Party (former NASDP of 1933 - 1945 infamy), the Alternative for Germany Party (think of the UK Independence Party) and the Pirate Party. The FDP, NSP, AfD and the Pirates all failed to achieve the 5% threshold, so have no representation in the Bundestag or any of the Landestags (the NSP typically gets around 2% and the Pirates about 3%), which leaves us with the seats going to four Parties for the first time in quite a while.

The winners are clearly the CDU/CSU, but here is the rub, with 301 seats, they are 3 seats short of being able to form a government. Their former coalition partners, the FDP are no longer in the parliament. The other 305 seats are held by three Parties, the SDP with 189, the B90/Greens and Die Linke holding the rest, but where the CDU/CSU polled 41.5% of the votes, these three polled respectively 26.5%, 8.4% and 8.7% with the latter two actually seeing the vote share fall by a substantial amount. Coupled with a high voter turnout (around 70% of the 62 million registered voters actually voted), this means, under any other voting system, that the CDU/CSU are the clear winners, not quite so easy in a country where the norm is to have a coalition! Over the next few weeks we will see a lot of negotiation going on between the Parties as they try to put together a coalition and thus a government.

All three of the smaller parties have a problem or two when it comes to a coalition with Frau Merkel. She grew up under the Communist regime of the GDR and has put a lot of clear blue water between herself and the Linke (who hate her). The SDP leadership fought the current campaign on a platform which attempted to polarise the voters and it has backfired. The Greens shot themselves in the foot by promising to raise taxes (already high) to pay for more "green" energy, to introduce compulsory "meat free days" in canteens and restuarants to "reduce carbon emmissions from animal production" and they will oppose any attempt to keep the nuclear power plants on the table, or to build the new coal plants on the cards. They want more windmills (opposed by the people living where these things will be built) and more subsidised solar power and a closer of everything else. Oh, and they want Germany out of NATO and a ban on weapons production and sales.

So, the possibility exists that, though she clearly won the election, Frau Merkel will still have to step aside and let the losers form a tripartisan coalition, one which will once more give the Communists control of Ministries. The SPD may regret the day it does that. Their alternative is to go into a "Great Coalition" with the CDU/CSU and swallow their pride (possibly ditching their current divisive leaders). One of the more interesting aspects, for me, has been the fact that the Alternative for Germany Party was formed only a few months ago. It is anti-European and anti-€uro and has obviously hit a resonance in the electorate because they have taken votes from all the major Parties in this election, actually coming very close, with 4.8% (again something very unusual), to gaining seats in the Bundestag. The Greens lost a very large chunk of their support, as did Die Linke, both dropping from above 10% vote shares, to just above 8% and the SPD barely held its own. This seems to reflect a commentary I read some months ago which suggested that Left and Centre-Left Parties were all losing their appeal and support.

As I said earlier, it will be interesting to see where this ends up. As they say round here, "Es ist nicht so Einfach!"

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