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Elections in Germany

The “Grundgesetz”, the German Constitution established after World War II in 1949, provides the framework of the right to elect the government in Germany and establishes that “the delegates of the German Parliament are elected in a general, direct, free, equal and secret vote”, thus aiming to avoid the violations of the electoral rights that had been committed by the Nazis upon their rise to power. Further embellished by the rules set forth in the Federal Electoral Act, the law stipulates that elections to the Federal government are to be held every four years and that German citizens who have reached the age of 18 have a passive and an active voting right, meaning that they are allowed to vote and may run as a candidate in elections. It is not mandatory to vote in Germany. In addition to the elections to the Federal Government, there are elections held to the parliaments of all sixteen German states as well as to regional and city parliaments. In addition, Germans are eligible to cast their votes for the European Parliament.

In elections to the German “Bundestag”, the major legislative body of Germany, all voters have two votes. The first vote is cast to select a representative of the constituency of the voter. Within this constituency, only one candidate will be elected with relative majority, all other first votes cast will not count. There are 299 direct candidates elected to the Parliament in this way. The second vote, however, is more important. With that second vote, a voter elects the list of candidates of a political party. The percentage of second votes a party receives will determine how many seats it gets in the Parliament. However, a party will only receive seats in the assembly, when the total votes cast for it surpass the threshold of 5% of all votes in the election.

As a result of this threshold, very few new parties are successful in actually winning seats in the parliament in the first years of their existence. For this reason, only a handful of parties have been represented in the German Bundestag in the past decades: the Christian-Conservative CDU and its Bavarian counterpart CSU, the Social-Democratic SPD, and the liberal party FDP have always had seats in the parliament from 1949 until not reaching the threshold anymore in 2013. The Green Party first appeared in 1983 as the first new party in the Bundestag since the end of the war and in 1998, the left-wing party PDS (now: “Die Linke”) was elected to the parliament for the first time, mainly thanks to strong support in the Eastern part of the country. There have, however, often been discussions about the continued need for the 5% threshold, as this leads to a grwoing number of votes lost without representation.

With the exception of the 1957 general elections, when the union of CDU and CSU received more than 50% of the votes, the German government has always been formed by a coalition of two parties in various combinations. After the elections are held, the parties hold coalition talks in order to achieve a majority of the seats in the parliament on a common political platform. Once two (or more) parties have compromised on a mutual program, they elect the Chancellor as the head of the German government. Among the Chancellor’s duties are the appointments of the ministers, with whom together he or she forms the Federal Cabinet.

In elections held within the 16 federal states, the system is very similar. The individual states’ parliaments vary in size and also, political tendencies sometimes  differ greatly between the states. When voters decide on their states’ parliaments, they also cast a vote for federal politics, as all states are represented in the second chamber of the federal parliament, the Bundesrat. Like federal elections, state elections are being held every four years.