EU Domestic Policy

German Elections: All You Need To Know

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On September 24, German citizens will head to the polls to vote for the Bundestag, one of the two legislative bodies at the federal level.

The influence of Germany over the EU and the international community means this election will be followed with bated breaths. Especially for European leaders, this will be a fundamental vote to figure out whether Germany is headed for another four years of Merkel’s rule, or whether there will be changes in the country’s policies.

Macron’s election came with the promise of an overhaul of the European project, and these German elections will be decisive in finalising who will stand next to the French leader to perform these changes, and what shape exactly they will take.

Electoral System

Germany’s electoral system is quite complicated, to the point that the country’s Constitutional Court only approved a voting law this February after striking out the last one as unconstitutional. The country uses a mixed-member system which combines proportional representation with elements of first-past-the-post voting.

A view of the plenary chamber.

The Bundestag is composed of a base number of 598 seats, although additional seats can be awarded to compensate for imbalances in votes to seats ratio. In fact, this is very common: the current Bundestag has 630 members, and the number can potentially swell up to 800.

Each citizen gets two votes: one for a candidate constituency, and the second for a party. According to first vote preferences, each one of the 299 constituencies sends to the Bundestag the candidate who has obtained the relative majority.

The rest of the seats are awarded nationwide based on second vote preferences. In order to prevent too much fragmentation, only parties that surpass a 5% electoral threshold are allowed to send representatives to the Bundestag. Parties representing nationally recognised minorities – at this point in time Frisians, Sorbs, Danes and Romani people – are exempt from this threshold requirement.

Additional seats are awarded in order to ensure correct proportional representation. Moreover, if a party fails to meet the threshold requirement but wins the first vote in at least three constituencies, it also receives a certain number of seats proportional to the voting result. The only case of this happening has been with the left-wing Party die Linke.

Main Parties

Altogether, there are 38 parties running in at least one constituency and which could – theoretically – win a seat in these elections. However, only 6 of those have a realistic possibility of winning a seat, either in first or second preferences.

The outgoing majority is represented by the centre-right CDU together with its Bavarian sister party CSU. The two, which run together, adhere to a Christian democratic and liberal conservative ideology. The second largest party is represented by the centre-left SDP, which adheres to social-democratic ideologies.

As the two biggest parties and likely to gain the most seats, their leaders – respectively Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz – are known as Chancellor candidates. However, that does not make the Bundestag legally bound to elect one of the two as Chancellor.

Further to the left, there are the Greens and Die Linke, a left-wing populist party. On the right, there is the German nationalist and Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany, which was founded in 2013 and only barely missed the 5% threshold at the last election. Positioning in the centre is the last major player in this race, the liberal Free Democratic Party.

Main Issues

As already discussed in a previous article, the economy has been at the centre of this electoral campaign, especially due to the German economy doing as well as it is, especially compared to the rest of the European Union. However, social issues have been under the spotlight as well: from immigration, to terrorism, passing through reforms to the European project and employment.

EU reforms has been a particularly hot topic in the country, and ones often linked together. While Die Linke and Alternative for Germany both profile themselves as deeply Eurosceptic, all the other major parties have favourable opinions on the Union. In fact, both CDU and SPD are the two major parties most in favour of a deeper European integration.

For CDU, this should take the form of a European Defence Union, increased information-sharing, effective control of the external borders against illegal immigration, and a European Asylum System. For SPD, the focus is on European cohesion and solidarity. To improve this, it has proposed a common fiscal regime, a strengthening of the common security and defence policy, and improving the EU’s welfare state.


A victory of the CDU is almost certain. With a clear advantage over other parties, the outgoing majority is set to remain the most popular party according to German citizens’ preferences. However, the 38% they are prospected to win in the Bundestag is not enough for a working majority.

Potential composition of the Bundestag (Wahlrecht, Telegraph data)
Potential composition of the Bundestag (Wahlrecht, Telegraph data)

Having categorically ruled out any alliances with Alternative for Germany, there are a number of possible coalitions which the CDU could pursue. First of all, a grand coalition with the second largest party, the SPD, which would enable a majority of over 60%. Another option is an alliance with the Greens and the Free Democratic Party, which would enable them to get a slightly less comfortable working majority.

However, the expected success of a pro-European leader shouldn’t fool anyone on the dire situation of Euroscepticism in Germany. Alternative for Germany is expecting success on election day, and their probable inclusion in the Bundestag for the first time ever could radically shake up the German political debate.

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Eleonora Di Franco

Law student at the University of York by day, plotting European federalisation by night. Also an aspiring academic.

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