Germany's federal parliament: fair and accurate representation

by Pauline Lejeune // Published September 30, 2009

On September 27, German voters elected the members of their 17th Bundestag, the lower house of their federal parliament. As expected, they handed conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel a second term—the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) won 33.8% of the vote—and a chance to create a center-right government with the economically libertarian Free Democratic Party (FDP), which scored its best result ever with 14.6%.

This parliamentary election may be part of a lasting realignment in German politics. The two main parties performed miserably, winning the least seats in the Bundesrepublik’s history. The abysmal showing was partly because the “grand coalition” had blurred parties’ identities. The Social Democrats (SDP) suffered a huge loss with only 23% of the votes, an 11.2% drop-off from the last election. Despite Merkel’s success, however, her CSU/CDU alliance won a record low of 33.8% of the party vote. In contrast, the three smaller contending parties (the FDP, the Greens and the Left Party) did very well, gathering between 10.7% and 14.6% of the votes. More surprisingly, from an American point of view, all of them won representation in the Bundestag that almost perfectly mirrors their support within the electorate despite the fact that the Greens and Free Democrats collectively won only one of the single-member seats up for election despite earning nearly a fifth of all votes cast.

From the perspective of reforming the U.S. electoral system to ensure both fair and proportional representation, the German election is especially remarkable. The highly representative outcome of the German election is the product of its Mixed Member Proportional System, in which each voter casts two ballots to elect about half of seats from U.S.-style single member districts and half from regional party lists: first they directly elect a Bundestag member in their local district , and then vote for their preferred party at an “at-large” regional level (the Land). This second ballot determines a party’s overall share of seats proportional to its Land-wide share, with seats added in to correct the typical distortions in the district elections.

This system gave voters the opportunity to elect one candidate from a party on their single-winner ballot and to choose another party in their second at-large vote. For the single-member district votes, voters mainly elected candidates from the CDU/CSU and the SPD because of the winner-take-all rules governing those elections. They are more likely to express their more sincere political preferences with their second votes, enabling smaller parties to secure seats through proportional representation.

The CDU/CSU in fact won more single-member district seats than its share of second votes would allow. As a result, 24 extra seats were created, changing the size of the Bundestag: the overall number of seats increased from 598 to 622. That fact, combined with the fact that some votes went for parties below the victory threshold, resulted in Merkel’s Christian Democratic alliance and their partner, the FDP securing a clear majority in the Bundestag (53.37% of the seats) with 48.4% of the nationwide votes.

The five percent threshold for parties allows representation for smaller parties, such as the FDP, the Greens and the Left Party, while excluding parties with less-than-substantial support (including the new Pirate Party that won 2% of votes overall while winning more than 10% of votes from young men). For example, the FDP received 9.4% of the single-member district ballots without being able to win any single-winner seats, but the proportional representation seats enabled it to secure 93 seats (15% of the Bundestag’s seats) that reflected their greater share of the party list votes.  Due to the mixed-member proportional system, the FDP now constitutes 30% of the coalition-to-be and has become the third most powerful party in the Bundestag.

Without the party list votes and seats, the CDU/CSU would have earned an overwhelming 73% of all seats and been able to govern on its own despite taking less than 40% of the district votes and barely a third of the party list votes. Due to its strong regional support in the former East Germany, the Left party would have won more than 5% of seats even as the FDP would have earned no seats despite its higher level of national support; the Greens would have won only a single seat despite 11% party list support.

Party % of SMD Ballots SMD* Seats received % SMD* Seats received % of PR Ballots PR** Seats received % PR** Seats received Total Seats received % Total Seats received Total Skew
CDU/CSU 39.40% 218 72.91% 33.80% 21 6.50% 239 38.42% 4.62%
SPD 29.70% 64 21.40% 23.00% 82 25.39% 146 23.47% 0.47%
FDP 9.40% 0 0.00% 14.60% 93 28.79% 93 14.95% 0.35%
Die Linke 11.10% 16 5.35% 11.90% 60 18.58% 76 12.22% 0.32%
Grune 9.20% 1 0.33% 10.70% 67 20.74% 68 10.93% 0.23%
Others 1.20% 0 0.00% 6.00% 0 0.00% 0 0.00% -6.00%

Germany’s elections served as a good illustration of how a proportional system can better reflect the various constituencies of a given electorate than our single-member district system.