German election: why Theresa May needs to worry about this poll

We fill you in on why campaigning rules are changing this year and what you can expect from the polls on Sunday What are the election rules? Germany has a system of proportional representation (PR), …

We fill you in on why campaigning rules are changing this year and what you can expect from the polls on Sunday

What are the election rules?

Germany has a system of proportional representation (PR), which decides seats in the Bundestag by dividing the electorate into 20,000 or so electoral districts. Voters in the same district vote on the same ballot paper, but once all the votes have been counted, a party that wins a big chunk of votes becomes represented in the Bundestag.

Demographics make this all the more critical as Germans are ageing fast, and in the next few years old-aged voters will outnumber young-aged voters. It’s called the “youth bulge”, and it’s producing huge voter numbers – some 286,000 registered to vote in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia alone, while 47 million Germans under 16 are registered voters. By comparison, Spain has 8 million under 16s eligible to vote, and 86.2 million are registered.

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So far so good. But PR means that results are subject to constituency-by-constituency votes. Not all voters in a district vote at the same time. This happens because the “peripheral” area of the district is either larger than the base district, or the populations of the two districts are different.

This extra voting can cut across opinion groups and make the election results unpredictable. When turnout in Germany was around 80% in the 1980s, for example, it often didn’t make much difference how a constituency voted: the strong participation of rural voters, for example, made it often possible for Angela Merkel’s conservatives to continue to govern after election in 2012, even though the centre-left opposition drew more votes than expected.

Could this election repeat those results? We take a look at why voting rules are changing now, and what to expect from the polls on Sunday.

What can we expect on Sunday?

In 2016, a populist surge saw the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland secure its first seats in the European parliament, and it is expected to gain further support this time. Merkel’s conservative CDU party, meanwhile, has lost the support of its traditional voters but recently saw a partial revival.

Merkel was able to maintain control of the conservative alliance after elections in 2013, but it looks increasingly unlikely that she can do so this time round. The polls currently suggest she will be beaten in her home state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, as well as in the federal state of Hesse and in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt.

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With its centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) in crisis, the ultra-centrist Free Democratic party (FDP) is looking like the one Merkel can’t take for granted. It currently looks like it could pick up seats in some key districts across the country, taking Merkel’s Christian Democrats to within sight of a clear majority.

While Merkel’s success in general elections has been down to her ability to draw huge numbers of voters from left and right, this time it is likely that many of those votes will go to different parties, and that turnout will be much lower than in previous elections. The main estimate looks like something in the mid-40s, as against about 70% or more in the past.

Meanwhile, several million people eligible to vote but still undecided (see panel below) have decided not to. Of those, 53% were thought likely to vote for the far-right AfD, 30% the CDU and 7% the SPD.

There’s a campaign and a ballot on Sunday. We’ll bring you the latest on one in-depth analysis of how the voting system works.

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