Just the Facts: German Federal Elections 2017

Federal elections were held in Germany on Sunday 24 September 2017.  The centre-right Christian Democrat alliance (CDU-CSU) led by Chancellor Angela Merkel had been in a ‘grand coalition’ with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) since November 2013. Provisional results released by the Federal Returning Officer indicate that the CDU-CSU remain Germany’s biggest parliamentary group in the Bundestag.  The CDU-CSU will now enter into coalition talks with other parties in order to form a government.

Background

German federal elections to the national parliament, the Bundestag, are held once every four years.  Germany uses the mixed-member proportional representation system, which is a system of proportional representation combined with components of first-past-the-post voting. 299 of the 598 seats in the German Bundestag are elected directly from Germany’s 299 constituencies; the other half are elected from party lists in the sixteen states or Länder.  Voters therefore cast two votes, one for their constituency representative (the first vote), and the other for a party listed in their state or Land (the second vote).  The party list vote, or second vote, determines the strength of the parties in the Bundestag.  

Seats are distributed amongst parties who gain more than five percent of the second vote, or three constituency seats.  Sometimes extra seats, known as ‘overhang seats’ or ‘balance seats’ are allocated to parties and added to the Bundestag.  Overhang seats are allocated if a party gains more constituency seats than they would have otherwise been entitled to according their proportion of the second vote.  Whereas, balance seats  are created to ensure that the distribution of the seats is reflective of parties’ share of the second vote and so that no party receives fewer than its guaranteed minimum number of seats. 

Coalition governments are common in Germany.  Since Angela Merkel was first elected as Chancellor in 2005, the centre-right Christian Democrat alliance (CDU-CSU) has twice entered into coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD), first from 2005 to 2009, and most recently from 2013 to 2017, as well as once alongside the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) from 2009 to 2013.  

The appointment of Martin Schulz, former European Parliament President, to lead the SPD in January 2017 briefly pushed the party ahead in polls, although more recent polling had shown the CDU-CSU retaining its position as the biggest grouping in the Bundestag.  On Sunday 3 September, Mr Schulz and Chancellor Merkel debated in the only televised head to head of the election.  Before the debate the CDU-CSU were polling 15 to 17 percentage points ahead of the SPD, however half of voters said they were undecided.  Germany’s migration policy in 2015, diplomatic relations with Turkey, and social inequality all featured prominently in the debate between the two leaders.   Polls taken after the debate showed that viewers found Chancellor Merkel to be more convincing than Mr Schulz in the debate; 55 per cent versus 35 per cent.

Results

Turnout for the election was 76.2 per cent, higher than in the past two federal elections in 2009 and 2013.  The federal elections saw six parties enter the Bundestag for the first time, as a result of passing the second vote, five percent threshold needed to gain seats in the Bundestag.

Provisional results released by the Federal Returning Officer indicate that the CDU-CSU has won 33 per cent of the second vote, which translates to 246 seats and means the alliance remain the biggest parliamentary grouping.  This is, however, a decline in their vote share of 8.5 per cent compared to 2013, and represents a loss of 65 seats overall.  The SPD remain the second biggest party, winning 20.5 per cent of the second vote and returning 153 seats. However, the result represents the party’s lowest return since the establishment of the Bundestag in 1949.

The far-right group AfD won 12.6 per cent of the second vote and returned 94 seats, entering the Bundestag for the first time in their history.  In the previous 2013 federal elections the AfD polled at 4.7 per cent, falling short of the required five percent.  The FDP received 10.7 per cent of second votes and re-entered parliament as the fourth-biggest party with 80 seats, having also not met the five percent requirement in 2013.  Both the Left Party (69 seats) and the Greens (67 seats) registered slightly higher voting scores than in 2013, receiving 9.2 per cent and 8.9 per cent of the second vote respectively.

111 additional overhang and balance seats are set to be allocated, bringing the total number of seats to 709.

Reaction

At the ‘Elephant’s Roundtable’, a post-election televised debate with party leaders, Mr Schulz reiterated that the SPD would not go into coalition with the CDU-CSU.  Chancellor Merkel said that she had “wished for a better result”, but added that her party was “clearly the strongest party”. 

With the SPD ruling itself out of another possible coalition with the CDU-CSU, and Chancellor Merkel having ruled out a coalition with the far-right AfD, a so-called ‘Jamaica’ coalition (an amalgamation of the symbolic colours of the parties in such a coalition) between the CDU-CSU, the Greens and the FDP appears most likely.  

The CDU-CSU will now enter into coalition talks with other parties to form a government which could take up to several weeks or even months.

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