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BERLIN – We may not yet know the identity of Germany’s next chancellor, but they will almost certainly be elected by a parliament that is even larger than the current one.
Germany does not grow, but the peculiarities of its voting system cause the number of members of the Bundestag to fluctuate.
German voters cast two votes, one for a candidate in their local constituency and one for a party. If a party wins more seats through the first than through the second, a process is triggered by which it manages to keep those seats and other parties are compensated for the imbalance that this creates.
Confused? You’re not alone. The system is so mysterious that few Germans understand the mechanics. But politicians cannot agree on fundamental reform because no one wants to risk losing seats, despite the fact that parliament expanded to a record 709 seats in the last election. They tried last year, but the changes will do little to stop the rise of the Bundestag.
“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 dispute over a reformed electoral law for years.
Hesse’s estimate is not the most extreme scenario among those currently circulating in the 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 electoral districts, 299, multiplied by two,” Hesse continued.
But if a party wins more direct candidates through the first vote than it could have through the second ballot, it is entitled to the so-called “cantilevered seats, ”Which then must be compensated through the so-called“ leveled seats ”, so that other parties do not put themselves at a disadvantage.
In the last elections, 65 cantilevered seats and 46 leveled seats were added to the Bundestag.
Dividing 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 gotten out of hand 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 is becoming more and more fragmented and majorities are getting smaller and smaller, which increases the risk that seats will run out and level out also because more and more people divide their votes” said Robert Vehrkamp, director of the Bertelsmann Foundation’s Future of Democracy Program, a think tank.
In this election, many observers say a perfect storm is brewing over the Bundestag.
One reason is that many center-right voters may split their votes, for example supporting a local candidate from the conservative CDU / CSU alliance but casting their list vote for the liberal Free Democrats (FDP).
“One of the biggest risks is that the CDU / CSU will get a lot of direct seats and at the same time will underperform in second votes,” Vehrkamp said.
Vehrkamp said he is not particularly bothered by the money additional lawmakers will cost the taxpayer, as “democracy can 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 depending on, among other things, the flow of work and the size of individual committees,” Vehrkamp said, adding: “A parliament with 800 delegates works worse than a parliament with 600 delegates, and we are already at 709.”
Choose a chancellor
Surprisingly, while the electoral process oozes German meticulousness, the path to a new chancellor after the elections is presented rather vaguely.
On Sunday, German voters will not directly elect Angela Merkel’s successor, who is not running for re-election after 16 years in power.
They will elect a parliament which, in turn, will elect a chancellor once the parties have agreed on a government.
There is no established process 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 is up to the parties themselves to find out.
Only after coalition negotiations are complete does the president come forward to propose a candidate for chancellor.
“Before that, it is not a legal question but a political question to what extent individual parties want to enter into coalition negotiations,” said Dana-Sophia Valentiner, professor of public law at Justus Liebig University in Gießen.
Coalition talks will be extremely difficult this time, as three parties, rather than the usual two, will almost certainly be required to form a majority coalition. In theory, a minority government is possible, but the inherent instability it brings makes it unlikely.
If a candidate for chancellor does not obtain the necessary majority in three votes, the president must decide whether to appoint the chancellor of a minority government or dissolve the Bundestag, which triggers a new election.
In a country that values orderly process, that would be what the Germans call a Super–CLOSED – a total collapse.