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BERLIN — We may not yet know the identity of Germany’s next chancellor, but it’s almost certain that they’ll be elected by a parliament that’s even bigger than today’s.
Germany isn’t getting any larger, but the peculiarities of its voting system mean that the number of members of the Bundestag fluctuates.
German voters cast two ballots, one for a candidate in their local constituency and a second for a party. If a party wins more seats via the former than the latter, a process is triggered whereby it gets to keep those seats and other parties are compensated for the imbalance this creates.
Confused? You’re not alone. The system is so arcane that few Germans understand the mechanics. But politicians can’t agree on a fundamental reform because no one wants to risk losing seats, even though the parliament expanded to a record 709 seats at the last election. They tried last year, but the changes will do little to halt the Bundestag’s bulge.
“Based on current polls, my prediction is that the next Bundestag will have 860 seats,” said Christian Hesse, a mathematics professor at the University of Stuttgart who has been involved in the quarrel over a reformed electoral law for years.
Hesse’s estimate is not the most extreme scenario among those currently circulating in German media, but it would still mean 151 seats more than the current total.
“The prescribed size of parliament is actually only 598, that is the number of constituencies — 299 — multiplied by two,” continued Hesse.
But if a party wins more direct candidates via the first vote than it would be eligible to have via the second vote, it has a right to so-called “overhang seats,” which then have to be compensated through so-called “leveling seats,” so other parties aren’t put at a disadvantage.
At the last election, 65 overhang seats and 46 leveling seats were added to the Bundestag.
Splitting the vote
The whole system was relatively manageable for much of Germany’s postwar history, when there were only a few parties in parliament. But things have been thrown out of whack as more parties have entered parliament and more voters have cast their first and second ballots for different parties.
“Due to the increasing pluralization of the party system, it’s becoming more and more fragmented and majorities are becoming smaller, which increases the risk of overhang and leveling seats also because more and more people split their votes,” said Robert Vehrkamp, director of the Future of Democracy program at the Bertelsmann Foundation, a think tank.
At this election, many observers say a perfect storm is brewing over the Bundestag.
One reason is that many right-of-center voters may split their votes — for example, supporting a local candidate from the CDU/CSU conservative alliance but casting their list vote for the liberal Free Democrats (FDP).
“One of the biggest risks is that the CDU/CSU will win many direct seats while at the same time performing poorly on second votes,” Vehrkamp said.
Vehrkamp said he’s not particularly bothered by the money the additional lawmakers will cost the taxpayer, since “democracy is allowed to cost money,” but that too many seats will make parliament dysfunctional.
“Twenty years ago, a Bundestag commission found that a suitable parliamentary size for Germany would be a maximum of 600 based among other things on the workflow and how big individual committees would be,” Vehrkamp said, adding: “A parliament with 800 delegates works worse than a parliament with 600 delegates — and we’re already at 709.”
Choosing a chancellor
Surprisingly, while the election process oozes German meticulousness, the path to a new chancellor after an election is set out rather loosely.
On Sunday, German voters won’t directly choose a successor to Angela Merkel, who is not running for reelection after 16 years in power.
They’ll elect a parliament that will, in turn, elect a chancellor once parties have agreed on a government.
There’s no process laid down in the constitution for forming a coalition and the president does not have to give any party a mandate to try to build an alliance. It’s up to the parties themselves to figure that out.
Only once coalition negotiations are completed does the president come forward to propose a candidate for chancellor.
“Before that, it’s not a legal but a political question to what extent individual parties want to enter into coalition negotiations,” said Dana-Sophia Valentiner, professor of public law at the Justus Liebig University in Gießen.
Coalition talks will be exceedingly difficult this time, as it is almost certain three parties — rather than the usual two — will be necessary to form a majority coalition. In theory, a minority government is possible but the inherent instability it brings makes one unlikely.
If a chancellor candidate does not garner the necessary majority within three ballots, the president must decide either to appoint the chancellor of a minority government or to dissolve the Bundestag, triggering a new election.
In a country that prizes orderly process, that would be what Germans call a Super–GAU — a total meltdown.