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Europe’s economic powerhouse and the most populous country will go to the polls on Sunday September 26 to elect a new government.

Germany’s parliamentary elections are expected to have important implications for the country’s future as Chancellor Angela Merkel steps down after nearly 16 years in office.

Although the Germans do not directly elect a new chancellor, they will have two votes to determine the composition of the parliament or the Bundestag, as they do every four years.

Here is an overview of how the German electoral system works.

How did the electoral system come about?

Germany is a federal parliamentary republic and its current system dates back to the end of World War II.

The country’s Basic Law entered into force in May 1949 for West Germany. Codified by a Council of Ministers under pressure from the Allied Powers, the Basic Law was to be replaced by a constitution.

But when Germany was reunited, the Basic Law endured.

It stipulates that the members of the Bundestag must be elected in “general, direct, free, equal and secret elections” and must represent “the whole of the people”.

How does the vote work?

The Bundestag officially has 598 seats, although this number can fluctuate due to the parliamentary system. It is the only body elected directly by the voters.

Every German citizen over the age of 18 has the right to vote in elections, which represents 60.4 million eligible voters: 31.2 million women and 29.2 million men.

Germans vote on election day: one for the candidates in their constituency and another for the lists of political parties.

Half of the Bundestag is made up of candidates from the country’s 299 constituencies.

Voting for these candidates resembles a “first past the post” system, where the person with the most votes wins straight away. Each constituency thus sends a winner to the Bundestag.

The rest of the parliament comes from the second vote of the lists of political parties. Each party presents a list of candidates in each of the 16 German Länder or Länder.

The number of seats is determined by the population of each Land and then allocated to the parties according to the proportion of the second vote they receive in that Land.

A political party needs at least 5% of the second vote or at least three constituency seats to enter the Bundestag. It is a threshold that aims to prevent small parties from entering parliament and causing a political stalemate.

The minimum number of seats in a party is determined by the higher number between the two votes.

“As far as party representation is concerned, the second vote is actually more important than the first vote because the second vote defines the percentage of the party’s seat allocation”, explains Jana Puglierin, President of the European Council on Foreign Relations from Berlin. Office.

How is the size of the Bundestag determined?

The Bundestag has 598 seats but its size can fluctuate due to the method of allocating seats to parties.

The second vote determines the proportion of seats a party obtains in the Bundestag, but a party could receive additional seats if it wins more constituency seats in a federal state than it would be entitled to in the second vote.

For example, if a party wins ten seats in the list system, but has 15 directly elected candidates in the constituency ballot, it will be allocated five additional seats in the Bundestag.

The gap occurs because “more and more people are dividing their votes differently” between the first and second votes, Puglierin explains.

The total number of seats in the Bundestag is then increased to ensure that parties get seats proportional to second votes.

These “balance seats” are in place to ensure that no party has an unfair advantage over the others. After the 2017 elections, the Bundestag thus had 709 seats instead of 598.

How is the Federal Chancellor elected?

Political parties often have to negotiate after elections to form a majority coalition that can lead the government. The candidates for the chancellery are agreed by the parties before the election.

“After the elections, the real work begins because in Germany: German governments are based on a stable government majority and building that is the huge task,” Puglierin explains.

The Chancellor is then appointed by the Federal President and voted on by the Bundestag in a secret ballot.

To be elected, the Federal Chancellor must obtain an absolute majority of votes, known as the Chancellor’s majority.

A second ballot can be organized if the candidate does not obtain an absolute majority and if a candidate still does not obtain an absolute majority, a third ballot will take place in which a candidate must obtain a relative majority to win.

The Federal President then appoints the Chancellor within seven days of the election.

This article is part of our special mini-series to help you understand the German elections.

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