By Rosemary Kluth
On my third year abroad from uni, working as an English assistant at a Hamburg school, I had no voting rights in German elections, and knew absolutely nothing about the German electoral system. Like many of my contemporaries in the Swinging Sixties, I had been against the Vietnam War and the Bomb, had occasionally demonstrated against apartheid or the crushing of the Prague Spring, but ignored the party aspect of politics altogether.
I don’t remember being taught anything about voting or elections at school, and at university I was more interested in enjoying life with my new-found friends than in political parties. Party politics seemed like a different world, and a million miles away from my own life experience.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when my young son came home from school in Germany with homework for a subject called Social Studies, which involved learning all about how the Government, Chancellor and President were elected, the difference between the Legislative and the Executive, and who was responsible for what.
I was even more impressed when he moved on to secondary school, and was kitted out with a booklet containing a summary of his constitutional rights, including – much to his delight – one about not having his bottom smacked when he misbehaved!
Once-bitten Germany was making sure from the outset that its citizens knew their entitlements and the arrangements for voting to protect them.
The loss of my own UK voting rights after 15 years of absence was a clear case of “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”, and many British citizens in the same position were unable to vote in the referendum that removed many of their precious EU citizens’ rights. Far too late, I realised that a political voice was much more important than I had thought.
To my eternal gratitude, I was able to obtain dual citizenship in the run-up to Brexit, and immediately found myself faced with voting in a German general election. As an EU citizen, I had voted in local and European elections, but this felt different, and so much more important. All the more so because the aftermath of the Brexit referendum had left me bitterly aware of the folly of thinking of day-to-day politics as being rather boring and beyond my control.
My new status as a voter necessitated a crash course on how handle the incredibly long ballot paper I was going to have to deal with. At once I started to see why the German electoral system is notorious for being so complicated that even many Germans don’t understand it.
The German electoral system is a combination of first-past-the-post (FPTP) and proportional representation (PR) with a few specific quirks that have been introduced for extra fairness. It was designed to be scrupulously even-handed and democratic, while avoiding the kind of fragmentation experienced during the Weimar Republic, which is widely seen as having facilitated the events leading to World War II. It also deliberately prevents any one party from becoming too powerful, with all the potential dire consequences.
Each voter has two votes. The first, in the left column on the ballot paper, is for a direct candidate from the local constituency. The second, in the right column, is for the party of the voter’s choice. Candidates and parties are listed based on performance in the last general election, with any new parties bringing up the rear.
Once any parties that fail to meet the 5% threshold have been disqualified, seats in Parliament are awarded to the parties on the right-hand side of the ballot paper proportionally to their results. This is the PR part of the system. The winning direct constituency candidates are also given a seat in Parliament. This is the FPTP element.
Now this would seem a very fair system, except that voters sometimes give their votes to two different parties, meaning that the number of successful direct candidates for a party may outnumber the percentage to which that party would have been entitled based on the PR part of the vote. This would not be democratic. Consequently, these extra mandates (Überhangmandate) are matched by balancing mandates (Ausgleichsmandate), which are awarded to the other parties proportionally to their election results.
This means that the number of seats in Parliament is likely to vary from one legislature to another – a fact which necessitates much reshuffling of seats before each new session begins.
Because it is highly unlikely that any one party will obtain an outright mandate, coalition governments are formed whose discussions, negotiations and agreements more genuinely reflect the diversity of views within the nation.
Highly convoluted though it is, the German system is immeasurably preferable to the pure FPTP system which produced the dangerously powerful government now in control in the United Kingdom.
Developments in the UK since Brexit have clearly shown how desperately electoral reform is needed. It also shows how important it is to interest children in the political basics from an early age, because if these things cannot be achieved, there is a risk that – like Germany in the past – we may have to learn the hard way.
If you would like to find out more, have a look at Wikipedia: The Electoral System of Germany