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One man, two votes

Text by Euny HONG

Latest update : 2009-09-25

Out of the ashes of WWII, the authors of the German constitution in 1949 crafted one of the most complicated electoral systems in Europe. Some call it unfair. Whatever your view point, its eccentricities will play a huge role in this election.

The authors of the 1949 German Constitution were haunted by the chaos of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) and the spectre of National Socialism. The combination of the these fears, the German constitution and the Electoral Law of 1956 ultimately resulted in the evolution of an electoral system that is generally viewed as one of the most complicated in Europe.


The three attributes that make it unique are the two-vote system, the Überhangmandate (the overhang mandate) and the rule that blocks any party from gaining any parliamentary seats if it does not manage to win 5% of the party vote. Both provisions are designed to “unclutter” the Bundestag and make decision-making a more rapid process.

First voice, second voice

Every voter gets two votes in the Bundestag elections. The first, the Erststimme (literally ‘first voice’) is a regular popular vote for individual candidates. The second vote, the Zweitstimme (‘second voice’) is for the party and its list. Because of the two votes, one can, for example, use the Erststimme to vote for a candidate from one party while using the Zweitstimme for a second party. Each ballot produces about half the candidates that end up in the Bundestag.

The list, a ranked hierarchy of members, is determined internally by each party. And that’s where problems arise, says Dr. Josef Braml, a resident fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations and the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Yearbook International Relations, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “In the US, politicians are entrepreneurs, on their own. If you make the majority vote, you’re in,” he says. “No party helps you, not even with financing.” In Germany, by contrast, the Zweitstimme gives German parties a lot of say, which means, according to Braml, “a lot of political infighting. If you don’t follow the party line, you may not be on the list.”

The Überhangmandate

One of the most peculiar aspects of the German electoral system, the Überhangmandate allows a party to win more seats than it has earned. If the number of votes a party receives in the Erststimme vastly exceeds the votes it receives in the Zweitstimme, extra seats are sometimes created in the Bundestag in recognition of the popular vote.

The Überhang could be of unprecedented importance this time, because the two main parties, the CDU/CSU and the SPD, are expected to win all of their Erststimme seats. Their Zweitstimme votes are projected to be much smaller. In any other system, this would mean fewer Bundestag seats. But with the Überhang system, the party gets “credit” for the first votes and picks up free seats.

Analysts expect up to 20 Überhang seats following Sunday's election.

The Überhang is the most controversial of all the aspects of the German electoral system, and the German constitutional court has ordered it to be reformed by 2011.

FRANCE 24 interviewed Dr. Jan Techau, another resident fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, where he is Director of the Alfred von Oppenheim-Center for European Policy Studies. He explains the justification behind the creation of the Überhangmandate: “The popular vote plus proportional representation are in conflict. You need to marry them, and one way to marry them is the Überhangmandate.”

The 5% minimum rule

A party that wins less than 5% of the party vote wins zero seats in the Bundestag.

To an outsider this seems punitive against smaller parties. But, experts say, it’s a necessary evil. “The 5% rule keeps the political landscape stable,” explained Techau. This decision has its roots in the political chaos and fractured parliaments that plagued Germany during the Weimar Republic (1919-1933). “In Weimar Germany, no reliable majority was achievable. The framers of the constitution decided on the 5% rule – ‘inequality for the sake of stability.’”

When asked about whether the rule arose out of fears of National Socialism, Techau said, “Indirectly, because the Weimar parliament was so unstable that the Nazis could portray it as a useless tool and on this argument they gained a lot of votes.”


Date created : 2009-09-25