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Andrew Marshall: Bundestagswahlen for beginners

Andrew Marshall is Managing Director of Cognito Media and a Camden Conservative Councillor

Screen shot 2013-09-22 at 07.35.06Many readers of Conservative Home have been following the German election closely, but here are a some points before my live blog for this site this evening that may be of interest:

Coalitions and majorities:  There’s a very strong antipathy to minority governments in Germany, dating back to Weimar experience, and reflected in the German consitution (which for example states that a government can only be replaced by a “constructive vote of no confidence” with a named new Chancellor).  So if Merkel and her liberal FDP partners are just two or three seats short, don’t expect her to form a minority coalition, as a British leader might.  Assume there will be negotiations to form a majority coalition government – there’s never been a minority government in the history of the Federal Republic (in other words a government whose coalition doesn’t have a majority of seats).  There are rumours that the Linke might want to “tolerate” a minority SPD-Green coalition, but given the SPD’s vehement denials, this seems virtually inconceivable this time around (though there are wild rumours some Linke moderate MPs from the former DDR might join the SPD post-election if SPD/Greens were just short).

Timing of results: We will no doubt get some rumours of exit polls on Twitter over the course of the afternoon.  Then we’ll get the exit polls on public broadcasters ZDF and ARD (and private broadcaster RTL) at 1700 London time.  From then on we’ll get updated “estimates” every 15 to 30 minutes for the next three or four hours.  These estimates are based on sampling of real votes as they are counted, and as the night goes on they are increasingly accurate.  Then at around 1.30-2.30am we’ll get provisional official results.  Most of the time, the exit polls are pretty good – in 2009 the CDU started off at 33.5 per cent and ended the evening at 33.8 per cent, while the FDP went from 15 per cent to 14.6 per cent.  But if it’s close, things can change over the evening – in 2002 the CDU/SCU/FDP looked to have won at 1800, but in the end Schröder pulled off another term.

It is also worth saying that in 2009 and 2005 the polls, as opposed to the exit polls, were not that accurate, with CDU underperformance of 6 per cent in 2005 and 2 per cent in 2009 compared to the final pre-election day poll averages.

The 5 per cent Clause and the FDP: the FDP is hovering around 5-6 per cent and if it gets under 5 per cent, then for the first time since the founding of the state, it won’t be in the Bundestag, and its survival as a party will be in serious doubt.  But the FDP has been close to the 5 per cent hurdle before and has pulled through, sometimes due to “borrowed” votes (“Leihstimmen”) from CDU voters.  For real geeks, it’s worth noting that if a party wins three or more constituency seats, it gets seats allocated on the basis of its percentage, even if only 4 per cent say.  The FDP hasn’t won a constituency seat since the 50s, so that won’t save them, but the Linke won 16 constituency seat in the former DDR last time, and therefore the 5 per cent clause holds few fears for it as a part (and it’s polling 8-10 per cent)
Overhang and compensatory seats: The actual number of Bundestag members is not fixed, due to the complexities caused by the mixed constituency/list system.  If a party in a state wins more direct constituency seats than its share of the second list votes would entitle it to, then it gets to keep these extra “overhang” seats.  This led in recent elections, with a fragmenting party system, to the  phenomenon of the so-called “negative weight of a vote” – in other words a party is worse off in seats because it got extra votes.  This happened to parties in eight Bundesländer in 2009.  In Bremen, if the SPD had got 255 votes fewer, it would have got one more seat.  And if the CDU in Baden-Württemberg had got 59,253 votes fewer, it would have got one more seat.  This bizarre situation led to a successful case before the constitutional court, and so this election is under a slightly revised system, in which “overhang” seats continue to exist, but would also be balanced by “compensatory” seats to avoid any “negative vote weight” phenomenon.  I hope that’s all as clear as the Schleswig-Holstein question.  Essentially it all matters if the numbers in the Bundestag are very tight.

The Bundesrat and Hessen: The current coalition does not enjoy a majority in the upper house, the Bundesrat, which represents the state or Länder governments, thus necessitating a considerable degree of compromise over many financial and domestic matters.  The state of Hessen is also voting today for the state parliament, with votes there being counted after the federal vote.  The current CDU/FDP coalition in Hessen might well lose to SPD/Green, but that would not alter the arithmetic in the Bundesrat.  But it’s worth noting that a CDU/SPD Grand Coalition would also not have a natural majority in the upper house (largely because some states have got SPD/Green state governments – in the Bundesrat the votes are a block vote by the state government, so in that situation the local SPD would have to negotiate with their Green partners on how to vote the state’s votes in the Bundesrat.)  So essentially, no possible federal coalition will have a majority in the Bundesrat.


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