LONDON: Why should you bother with the German Federal elections next week? Here’s one good reason: Germany runs Europe and the European Union (EU) has a major and growing trade relationship with India. Germany doesn’t officially run Europe, of course. Brussels, the home of the EU, is full of highly paid, unelected bureaucrats and politicians who think they are running the EU, but in reality whatever Germany wants to happen, happens; and whatever it doesn’t want to happen, doesn’t. The reason is quite simple. The German economy is by far the biggest in the EU, with a GDP of about $4 trillion. The population of Germany at about 83 million is also by far the largest in the EU. Perhaps the principal reason for Germany’s dominance in the EU is its net contribution to the EU budget, some 14.5 billion euros net in 2015, dwarfing all others except the UK. The departure of the UK from the EU will make Germany even more dominant in the future, something which worries most of its partners, who until now have relied on the UK to provide some kind of balance of power in the EU. So, if Germany is dominant, the person who runs Germany must be the dominant politician in the EU. The German electoral system, however, is almost designed to ensure that a single party, and therefore leader, cannot rule without the support of a coalition partner. Power is, therefore, more distributed than in a “first-past-the-post” system, as is the case in the UK. Here’s how it works.
Unlike in the UK, where voters put a cross against one name on the voting slip, German voters get two votes on a single ballot paper. The first vote is for the representative, the second is for a political party. There are 299 electoral districts, so there are 299 seats in the Bundestag, the German Parliament, allocated to a straight first-past-the-post victor from the first vote. There are 299 more seats in the Bundestag allocated on a party basis, provided they clear the threshold 5% in the second vote. So, if a party gets 20% of the national vote it gets 20% of the party seats, being 59 seats. But here’s where it gets a bit complicated. If a party gets more seats from the first vote than it is entitled to by the proportional second vote, the other parties are compensated by getting extra seats. The seats in the Bundestag from the last election in 2013 totalled 631.
So much for the technical bit, what about the parties vying for power next week? There are seven major parties ranging across the political spectrum. On the far right is the nationalist and eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Moving to the centre is the centre-right liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). Then comes another centre-right party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), a Bavarian party, which always allies with the main liberal conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Crossing to the left you meet the Social Democratic Party (SDP) led by former EU politician Martin Schultz. The Green party comes next, followed by the Left Party. There have been 18 Federal elections since the end of the Second World War, 11 before East and West Germany were re-united on 3 October 1990, and seven since re-unification. Of these the CDU/CSU (considered as one party) has won 12 and the SDP six. On only one occasion has a single party, CDU/CSU, governed by itself, and that was in 1957, before reunification; on all other occasions there has been a coalition, usually involving the right-of-centre FDP. For the seven years between 1998 and 2005, the centre-left party SDP formed a coalition with the Greens, forming the only post-war left wing coalition.
What is likely to be the result of next week’s elections? For many months, Angela Merkel’s party has polled about 37%, which puts her well into the lead, although not enough to govern alone. Martin Schulz’s party, the SDP, is polling at about 23%. The Left are hovering around 9%, but the party most pleased with its current polling is AfD, at about 10% and is almost certain to win seats in the Bundestag this year for the first time in its short history. The Greens are polling at about 8%. Although pollsters say that a significant number of electors remain undecided, if this pattern remains until election day, it is certain that Merkel will win for the fourth consecutive time. She will, however, need to seek yet again a partner in coalition. It is possible that she could persuade Schultz to join her in a so-called “grand coalition”, a popular solution she adopted in both 2005 and 2013. Another possibility for Merkel is a coalition yet again with the FDP. In 2013, the FDP had a disastrous election result, but polling this time suggests they have recovered to about 9%, which will ensure some 60 seats. This, together with the expected 260 seats for the CDU/CSU would give Merkel a working majority. The only possibility for Schultz to become Chancellor would be to form a coalition with both the Left and Greens, a possible but unlikely outcome. No party will form a coalition with the far right AfD. So there we have the list of probabilities: a grand coalition, a CDU/CSU/FDP coalition, a CSU/Left/Green coalition, in that order. But whatever the outcome, don’t expect to hear soon. In 2013, the election took place on 22 September and after exhaustive negotiations, the new government was sworn in on 17 December. In Germany, patience and politics are synonymous.
John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998 and is presently Chairman of the Plymouth University of the Third Age.