The German federal election is in less than four months, on September the 24th, so inspired by Sal's excellent explanation of the UK election, I thought I might post an explainer.
The Basic Rules
Germany has a parliamentary system, which means that the Chancellor, who is the head of the federal executive, is dependent on the confidence of the Bundestag, the directly elected part of the federal legislature. (In German, the Chancellor is both officially and usually called the Federal Chancellor, which is one word in German.) The regular term of office for the Bundestag is four years. Under the constitution, an early election - that is, an election before the four years are over - is only allowed if a Chancellor loses a vote on a motion of confidence in the Bundestag. Therefore, when Chancellors want to hold an early election, they do that by intentionally losing a vote on a motion of confidence in the Bundestag. That has been done a couple of times; apparently, each time, some people complained to the Federal Constitutional Court that doing things that way was against the spirit of the constitution, and each time, the Federal Constitutional Court basically said "We don't like it, either, but no matter how it might relate to the spirit of the constitution, it's within the letter of the constitution, so there's nothing we can do." An early election automatically starts a new four year term. Anyway, the upcoming election is a regular election, not an early one.
German elections are proportional, that is, a party's share of the total vote in the election roughly determines that party's share of the seats in the elected institution. The details are a bit more complicated, but, having struggled with depression in the past, I think I'd rather keep my will to live by not trying to explain the details. The most important rule is that (aside from a few exceptions that I won't get into) a party needs five percent of the votes in the election in order to get any seats in the elected institution. That rule, however, does not apply in a number of local elections and in the elections for the German-elected part of the European Parliament.
People generally vote for parties rather than individuals; as a result, German legislators are very heavily dependent on their parties, and almost never vote against them. Generally, it wouldn't make much of a difference if German legislatures would be replaced with conferences of party chairs in which the party chairs would get multiple votes based on their party's share of the vote in the most recent election.
The Federal Council
In addition to the Bundestag, there's the Bundesrat, which translates as "Federal Council". It is not directly elected - it consists of cabinet members from the individual states. (Germany is geographically small enough and has a good enough transportation infrastructure to make that practical.) Each state has a number of votes based on its population. The Chancellor does not need the confidence of the Federal Council, although it can be annoying to try to govern with too much of the Federal Council against you. Not all bills need Federal Council approval - there's a long list of types of laws that need Federal Council approval, and another long list of types of laws that don't. Unlike most other places with bicameral systems, Germany doesn't have a special name for the legislature as a whole - in fact, the constitution treats the Bundestag and the Federal Council as two separate institutions, not as two parts of one institution.
Most of the time, you can safely forget about the individual steps in the process for "how a bill becomes a law" in Germany - in practice, the governing coalition agrees on a bill, then the bill gets formally introduced, and the rest is just formalities and maybe some fine-tuning. That, however, won't work if the bill is a federal bill for a type of law that needs Federal Council approval, and the federal governing coalition doesn't have a majority in the Federal Council (remember, the Chancellor doesn't need the confidence of the Federal Council).
The Federal President
Then there's the Federal President, not to be confused with the Chancellor. He (it has always been a man so far, though that's not a requirement) is the ceremonial head of state, comparable to the Queen in the UK, but (indirectly) elected and not in office for life. He gets to formally sign laws, formally sign the appointment certificates for the Chancellor and the federal cabinet members, formally set the date for the election of the Bundestag, formally receive foreign ambassadors, formally hand out medals, and generally do a lot of formal things. He's elected for a five year term by the Federal Assembly, which is a special institution that exists only for that purpose and consists to one half of all members of the Bundestag and to the other half of people appointed by the state legislatures. Unlike the Chancellor, the Federal President is term-limited to a maximum of two terms. If the office of Federal President is vacant, the President of the Federal Council becomes Acting Federal President until a new Federal Assembly has assembled and elected a new Federal President.
Officially, Germany has a federalist system. I say "officially" because I don't really agree with that view myself. To me, the German political system looks more like something that was designed by people who wanted to design a federalist system and looked up in an encyclopedia what "federalism" is, but didn't really understand what they were reading. For instance, in the fields of policy left to the states, it's common for all states to coordinate (through conferences of heads of departments) so that they mostly all do the same thing. Which, in my opinion, sort of goes against the whole point of having a federalist system in the first place.
Anyway, in most cases, the head of the executive of a state is called a "Ministerpräsident", which is usually translated as "Minister-President", but I don't see why it shouldn't be translated as "Prime Minister" or "Premier" instead. The exception to that is that in the city-states (Berlin, Hamburg, and Bremen) the head of the executive is the mayor. The political systems of the states mostly mirror the federal political system, except without a counterpart to the Federal Council. Also, the states don't have ceremonial heads of state - instead, the Prime Ministers and cabinet members of the states get their formal certificates of appointment from the presidents of the state legislatures.
A few of the states have existed in some form in more or less their current borders for a long time, but most were cobbled together from bits and pieces of earlier political entities by the Allies after World War 2. Therefore, some of them have awkward hyphenated names like "Nordrhein-Westfalen" (North Rhine-Westphalia) or "Baden-Württemberg".
Unlike in the USA, state legislative elections in Germany are separate from federal elections - they're mostly not in the same years, usually not at the same time of year (except by coincidence), and mostly not even at the same intervals - most state legislatures have five year terms, while the Bundestag (as mentioned above) has a four year term. Partly because of this, and partly because there are only sixteen states, which means that each state can get a bigger share of attention than in the USA, state legislative elections in Germany have an important function as signals. For instance, in 2005, then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's governing coalition lost a number of state legislative elections, and eventually, the combined signal from them became strong enough that he called for an early federal election. One US politician once famously said that "all politics is local" - well, in Germany, it's arguably the opposite: most politics is national.
Political parties in Germany generally come in three sizes - big, small, and very small. If a big party gets 20 percent of the votes in an election, everyone will talk a lot about what a soul-crushing defeat that is for that party. If a small party gets 20 percent of the votes in an election, everyone will talk a lot about what an incredible triumph that is for that party. Meanwhile, very small parties can be happy about any votes they get. But the more important number for small parties (and for very small parties aspiring to become small parties) is five percent - as mentioned above, that's the minimum required to get seats in the Bundestag and the state legislatures. Germany has two or three (depending on how you count) big parties, currently about four small parties, and a lot of very small parties.
(Note to German speakers: I'll use terms like "center-right" or "more to the right than x" for the CDU and the CSU - that's because I'm writing in English. I wouldn't use the German word "rechts" to describe either of these parties, except perhaps when talking about a few individual embarrassing members. While technically, the German word "rechts" and the English word "right" mean the same thing, I think the former has a much stronger association with neonazis.)
The Big Parties
The CDU or Christian Democratic Union. The main center-right party in fifteen of the sixteen German states - all except Bavaria. Not active in Bavaria. Ranges from mellow centrists to people who are more conservative and in some cases quite openly nationalistic - although I don't know how many of that last group are left after the last few years. The party of current Chancellor Angela Merkel, which might be confusing for some English speakers, given how much she is seen as a heroine by some English speaking center-leftists these days, and given how much some English-speaking right-wingers seem to hate her these days. Apparently called a "union" rather than a "party" because when it was founded after World War 2, some of its founders associated the very word "party" with the Nazis, or the Communists, or both. Their political color is black.
The CSU or Christian Social Union. The main center-right party in Bavaria. Almost always governs Bavaria, and usually gets more than half of the seats in the state legislature there. Not active anywhere else, except for its participation in federal institutions. Cooperates with the CDU at the federal level, and has a joint "faction" (or caucus, or party conference, or however you want to call it) with them in the Bundestag. Generally seen as more conservative, more "folksy", and more heavily Catholic than the CDU. (In Germany, unlike in much of the English speaking world, Catholics are generally perceived as more culturally conservative than Protestants. ("Generally perceived", of course, doesn't necessarily mean that it's true.)) Strongly associated with beer halls, lederhosen, etc. Apparently called a "union" for the same reasons as the CDU. Their political color is usually black, though sometimes blue is used to distinguish them from the CDU.
(My own interpretation of the difference between the CDU and the CSU is that the CDU is a political party while the CSU is a folklore association, but that's just me.)
The SPD or Social Democratic Party of Germany. Traditionally the main center-left party in all sixteen states, although they've fallen behind the Greens in some places recently. Like the Democrats in the USA under Bill Clinton or Labour in the UK under Tony Blair, they moved to the center to win elections under Gerhard Schröder, to such an extent that the last time they led the federal government (1998-2005) is mostly remembered for a series of cuts to the welfare state. Oldest party in Germany - voted against Hitler's Enabling Act in 1933, which meant that after World War 2, they could just rebuild their party structures under the old name, while politicians more to the right than them had to found entirely new parties from scratch. Their political color is red.
The Small Parties
The Greens. They started out as something very similar to the similarly-named parties in other countries, but moved a good deal more to the center over time, with a lot of passionate internal arguments along the way. Then again, that process wasn't one-sided - the center itself has moved in a more environmentally-friendly direction since they were founded. You may guess three times what their political color is, and the first two guesses don't count.
Die Linke, that is, The Left. A rather pretentious name IMO, since I think that the left as a political camp is a lot bigger than that one party. They were originally the state party of East Germany under Communist rule. Then they changed their name a couple of times, and merged with a left-wing group that had split off from the SPD on one of those occasions. Now mainly the party of people who think the SPD and the Greens aren't left-wing enough, although some of those think that The Left isn't left-wing enough, either. Tend to support pretty much anyone who's in a conflict with the leadership of the West when it comes to international politics. Their political color is a deeper shade of red than the SPD‘s.
The FDP or Free Democratic Party. The party of those people who are called liberals in Germany, which means that by US standards, they're basically a kind of watered-down libertarians. Their rhetorics often sound like those of US libertarians (minus the gun stuff), and I don't doubt that some of them fantasize about building a libertarian utopia in their secret dreams, but their actual policies are a lot more moderate, mainly because as a small party, they don't get to dictate policy, only to nudge it a bit into their preferred direction. Their political color used to be yellow, and yellow-blue in contexts that allowed for more than one political color per party. A few years ago, they switched to magenta as part of a rebranding exercise, but most media outlets continue to paint their column yellow when showing election results.
The AfD or Alternative for Germany. (The lowercase f is theirs.) Hard Right. OK, to be fair to them, they did throw out that one guy who talked about how bad it is that Hitler is always just seen as a bad guy. [Very belated Edit and correction: No, they didn't actually throw that guy out. There was some talk of doing it, but nothing came of it. I had misunderstood the news. ] They started out as a moderately euroskeptic party - "moderately" in that they originally didn't even want to leave the EU, only the Euro. Then they jumped on the refugee issue when it became a big deal in 2015 (you can figure out yourself where they stand on that issue), and that allowed them to grow from a very small party into a small party, and will probably allow them to become the first hard right party to jump over five percent nationally and enter the Bundestag in a very long time. They're generally a lot stronger in the former East Germany than in the former West Germany, which is something they ironically have in common with The Left. Their political color is apparently blue.
The Very Small Parties
Germany has a lot of very small parties, ranging from neonazis to punks to Christian fundamentalists to New Age cultists to hackers to satirists, and apparently even a local branch of the LaRoucheites, but you don't really have to worry about them. The neonazis among them used to occasionally jump above five percent in some states and enter some state legislatures, but that is probably over now that the AfD is stealing most of their voters.
German parties, unlike the two main parties in the USA, have formal memberships with membership cards and all that, so joining them is a bit more complicated than just registering as one of their voters. I don't really know that much about their internal structure. The constitution mandates that the internal structures of parties have to be small-d democratic, so you couldn't found a party in which the party charter says that you're the party dictator and get to appoint all the party officials and nominate all the party's candidates for office. There are no primaries, though, although some parties have apparently experimented with primary-like thingies in some places. Most of the time, regular members elect lowest level delegates, who in turn elect slightly higher level delegates, who in turn elect even higher level delegates, and so on, until the level of the state and federal conventions, which nominate the parties' candidates for state and federal offices. Parties can, as mentioned above, formally expel members, although they're theoretically required to give them a fair hearing first. There are special structures called "party courts" for that.
So Who Votes For Whom?
Mostly, the stereotypes associated with the German parties are similar to those associated with similar parties in the English speaking world, e.g., the farther you get to the left, the longer men's hair tends to be, the farther you get to the right, the shorter men's hair tends to be, and so on. I think it's important to keep that in mind. Sometimes, people who compare US and German politics (or US and European politics generally) claim that by US standards, the economic policies of the CDU would be center-left. And there's some truth in that. But it ignores that first, on some cultural issues, the CDU's policies would be clearly to the right of the Democrats even in the USA, and second, broadly speaking, the sort of people who vote for the CDU or CSU in Germany are the sort of people who would vote for the Tories if they were British or for the Republicans if they were from the USA. And the same applies, broadly speaking, to other parties. ("Mainstream" people can vote for either big or regular small parties in Germany, but the sort of people who vote for very small parties are generally the sort of people who might vote third party in the USA.)
There are some exceptions to the previous paragraph. One is that, apparently, in some parts of the former East Germany, local chapters of The Left still contain some bitter old men who were minor career officials back under Communist rule and who would probably be conservatives if they had spent their lives in a part of the world that never had Communist rule in the first place. Another is that the CDU is still very much associated with the middle class, unlike the current stereotype about US Republicans' massive appeal to the "white working class". (I'm not getting into how true or untrue that stereotype is.)
Outside of Bavaria, it's very rare for one German party to get a majority of the seats in a legislature. Minority governments are fairly rare, too. So, parties have to form coalitions, that is, two or more parties share power, with the leader of the biggest of those parties becoming Chancellor or Prime Minister. Coalitions in Germany can be roughly divided into two types: What you might call "natural coalitions" and what you might call "coalitions of necessity". (The scare quotes are there because those are terms I came up with myself, not terms that are usually used by political scientists or something like that.) Naming the coalitions is what you need all those political colors of the parties mentioned above for.
"Natural coalitions" are coalitions in which the parties involved mostly get along well and are to some extent on the same ideological wavelength. At this point in history, there are basically two possible "natural coalitions" in Germany: CDU/FDP (CDU/CSU/FDP on the federal level), which is called "black-yellow", and SPD/Greens, which is called "red-green". (There was a time in the 1970s when the SPD and the FDP in West Germany formed a lot of "red-yellow" coalitions, but that time is long gone.) If a "natural coalition" gets a majority of seats in a legislature, you basically know what will happen. (But if the bigger party of a "natural coalition" gets a majority on its own, it will still govern alone, with the smaller party joining the opposition.) Within a "natural coalition", if the smaller party appears to be in trouble, it's common for some supporters of the bigger party to vote for the smaller party, to keep it from falling below five percent.
When neither a party alone nor one of the "natural coalitions" has a majority, a "coalition of necessity" has to be formed. These can include parties that really don't like each other, so the process of forming a coalition is usually longer and more complicated. The most common "coalition of necessity" is the "grand coalition" of CDU and SPD (CDU/CSU/SPD at the federal level). It usually means that the SPD keeps the CDU from moving things to the right, and the CDU keeps the SPD from moving things to the left, so things generally stay as they were when the coalition started. The current federal coalition is a "grand coalition". But neither the CDU nor the SPD really like that option, so they often look for other options.
At the state and local level, where foreign policy is not an issue and the size of the welfare state is not much of an issue, "red-red" or "red-red-green" coalitions of the SPD and The Left, with or without the Greens, often work, but at the federal level, the differences between the SPD and The Left on those two issues make that basically impossible. In some places, the CDU and the Greens have formed state or local "black-green" coalitions, but at the federal level, the differences between what the average CDU member or voter wants and what the average Green member or voter wants are big enough that even if politicians from these two parties could work out some sort of coalition deal, they'd probably get tarred and feathered by their own parties. Other options that have been tried are "traffic light coalitions" of the SPD, FDP, and Greens ("red-yellow-green"), and "Jamaica coalitions" of the CDU, FDP, and Greens ("black-yellow-green", the colors of the flag of Jamaica). (As far as I know, Jamaica itself has a two party system and no need for coalitions.) (Oh, and actually the colors of the flag of Jamaica are black-gold-green.)
Basically all other major parties have ruled out forming a coalition with the AfD under any circumstances.
The process of forming coalitions usually takes weeks or even more than a month. During that process, the previous coalition stays in power as an "acting government", with the authority to run the day to day business of government but no authority to make big decisions. Compare this to, say, the coalition that ruled the UK from 2010 to 2015: If I remember correctly, it was formed in a few days, and during those days, Britons were apparently deeply shocked and dismayed that they might have to wait several whole days to see what their next government would look like.
I've heard different views on whether the British term "hung parliament" can be applied to Germany. Some say that, since hung parliaments are unusual and coalition forming is normal in Germany, no German parliaments are ever hung; others say that since most German elections result in no single party controlling the legislature, most German parliaments are technically hung. I myself think that the closest German equivalent to a British hung parliament is when neither of the two "natural coalitions" has a majority, but even that is very common these days.
So, What To Expect On The Day Of The Election
Unlike in the USA, where you get to refresh websites all night long to see which percentage of precincts in this or that state are reporting and where the race stands, and unlike in the UK, where TV channels spend much of the night going from one constituency to the next constituency to hear the returning officers announce the vote totals, election evening excitement (it's not really an election night) in Germany generally consists of watching a few brightly colored columns rise, to show the various parties' percentages of the vote.
At the moment the polling stations close, at 6 pm Central European time (5 pm British and Irish time, 12 noon East Coast Time, 11 am Central, 10 am Mountain, and 9 am West Coast Time), TV stations publish a "prognosis" based on exit polls. This prognosis is almost always within a few percent of the final results for all parties, so unless either one party is very close to five percent or the majority possibilities are very close, everything that comes afterwards is usually less exciting. (Media are banned from publishing exit polls while the polling stations are still open, but unlike in the UK, they are allowed to do other reporting about the election. And apparently, political leaders get exit poll results long before the polling stations close.)
Then, as polling station after polling station reports its totals, TV stations put these numbers into computers which compare the numbers to previous results from the same polling stations, calculate swing, use some more mathematical tricks, and try to extrapolate based on all this how the final result of the election will probably look like. TV stations publish one such "extrapolation" ("Hochrechnung") after another. Because they use these "mathematically processed" numbers, rather than "raw" numbers, there's generally very, very, little change in the percentages of the different parties over the course of the evening. So instead of a long night of excitement, it's usually one big moment of excitement, when the polling stations close.
So, What Will The Election Result Be?
Yes, I know, polls can be wrong. Yes, I know, a lot can happen in three and a half months. And yes, I know, ultimately the only poll that matters is the one on election day.
If you look at both the polls and the most recent state legislative election results, it seems likely that the the result will be such that a continuation of the current CDU/CSU/SPD "grand coalition" under Angela Merkel's leadership (assuming that she stays in good health) will be the only plausible option.
There's some chance that a CDU/CSU/FDP "black-yellow" coalition will have a majority (which would still be lead by Angela Merkel), but it's more likely that it won't. There‘s basically no chance that a "red-green" coalition will get a majority. There's only a very small chance that a "red-red-green" coalition will even get a theoretical majority, and that's before we get to the fact that it wouldn't work out anyway. And a CDU/CSU/Green "black-green" coalition almost certainly wouldn't work out, either, even in the unlikely case that it would have a majority.
The AfD will almost certainly get above five percent and enter the Bundestag, which will lead to a lot of jubilation among their supporters and a lot of dismay among most other people, but aside from the signaling effect, it won't matter much - they will still be a small party, small parties only get to exercise real power when they join coalitions, and this particular one won't join a coalition.
The irony is that, since neither The Left nor the AfD will join a coalition at the federal level, the more votes these parties get, the more likely it becomes that the "grand coalition" is the only realistic option. In other words, the more votes the far left and the far right get, the stronger the position of the center becomes.
So, thank you for reading all this, and sorry for spoiling the ending!
did you send enough shit to guarantee victory?
Last edited by Raphael on Mon May 07, 2018 7:52 am, edited 7 times in total.