On September 26, 2021, the Germans will go to the polls to decide who will run the country for the next four years. There are plenty of informed articles on the dynamics of the 2021 election (e.g., “What You Need to Know about Germany’s National Election” in The New York Times, “German elections 2021: Simple guide to vote ending Merkel era” from BBC News, and “German election too close to call as polls find SPD has lost its lead” in The Guardian). For the first time in 16 years, as Angela Merkel’s tenure as the country’s leader comes to an end, Germany will have a new chancellor. But Germans don’t actually vote for a chancellor candidate. How then does the German system of representative democracy work?
Germany’s 16 states are subdivided into 299 districts (Wahlkreise), each containing roughly 250,000 eligible voters (Wahlberechtigte). On election day, typically a Sunday, voters receive a ballot divided into two columns. On the left side of the ballot (Erststimme), voters choose the candidate they would like to represent their district in the German parliament (Bundestag). On the right side of the ballot (Zweitstimme), voters choose the party they feel best represents their interests. The 299 candidates chosen through the first vote (Erststimme), i.e. each candidate with the most votes in each of the 299 districts, represent half of the total 598 parliamentary seats (Mandate). These first 299 seats are called Direktmandate. The remaining 299 parliamentary seats (Mandate) are filled according to the results of the second vote (Zweitstimme). Each party receives a number of seats in proportion to the percentage of the votes received in this second vote (Zweitstimme). However, a party must receive at least 5% of the national vote in the Zweitstimme (or at least three seats in the Erststimme) in order for those votes to be counted. If the threshold isn’t reached, those party seats (however, not the candidate seats from the Erststimme) are forfeited. This rule (Fünfprozenthürde or Sperrklausel) is meant to prevent the extreme fragmentation of the party system, which can hinder the government’s ability to maintain stability and to rule effectively.
So the question remains: How is a chancellor elected? Deciding who the next chancellor will be is the first job of the newly elected parliament (Bundestag). The party that has the most representatives in parliament usually determines who will be the next chancellor. This happens either because a party has more than half of all the parliamentary seats, and therefore an absolute majority of the votes, or because that party has formed a ruling coalition (Regierungskoalition) with one or more other smaller parties, in which compromises and concessions are made, including deals regarding appointments to posts within the chancellor’s cabinet. After consulting with all the parties represented in parliament, the federal president (Bundespräsident) nominates a candidate. The parties most likely to win the election typically decide who they intend to put forward as a chancellor candidate long before the parliamentary election (Bundestagswahl). This year, there are three candidates — Armin Laschet (CDU), Olaf Scholz (SPD), and Annalena Baerbock (die Grünen). The candidate must be at least 18 years old and a German citizen, but needn’t be a member of the newly elected parliament. The Bundestag members then vote on the nominated candidate. An absolute majority, i.e. half of all the possible votes plus 1, is required for the vote to succeed. Thus far, every German chancellor has been elected with a majority of votes during the first voting round. Should this vote fail, however, the parliament has 14 days to elect a new candidate by absolute majority, and after 14 days have passed, by a relative majority of the votes. The new chancellor (Bundeskanzler or Bundeskanzlerin, as the case may be) takes office as soon as the Bundespräsident makes the voting results official. Then the federal ministers and secretaries are appointed by the Bundespräsident at the suggestion of the new chancellor. The chancellor’s term in office lasts four years and officially ends with the selection of a new Bundestag. However, the ruling chancellor continues to carry out the duties of the office until the new parliament elects a national leader.
Want more info about how the federal election works?
Videos (auf Deutsch). Watch these informative and detailed videos about the parliamentary election process from the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung.
Video 1 – Erst- und Zweitstimme – More details about the Bundestagswahl
Video 2 – Fünf-Prozent-Hürde – More details about the 5%-threshhold
Video 3 – Überhang- und Ausgleichmandate – More details about the process of filling seats according to election results
Test your knowledge
Das große Wahl-Quiz (auf Deutsch): Quiz for kids about how German elections work
Das Quiz zum Deutschen Bundestag (auf Deutsch): What do you know about the German Bundestag? Choose from three levels of difficulty.