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The Global Citizen Guide to the German General Elections

On Sept. 24, Germans will head to the polls to elect a new governing coalition in their 2017 federal elections.

The importance of these elections can’t be underestimated.

The elections will serve, in a sense, as a referendum on Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party.

Merkel, a controversial leader in some aspects, has led the fight toward a more open Germany that accepts refugees and serves as a world leader on the international stage. She has also anchored the fight to preserve the European Union in the wake of the UK’s Brexit decision.

This will mark the first time Germans put Merkel to a vote since the 2015 refugee crisis saw an estimated 1.1 million refugees enter the country. (The last federal election took place in 2013).

While polls have Merkel’s CDU far ahead of her opponents, the coalition she is set to govern is still very much in the air. For the first time ever, BBC reports, Germans will see six parties on the ballots, including the far-right, anti-Islam party Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Merkel has already forsworn forming a coalition with AfD, as well as the far-left party Die Linke, which means three remaining parties will vie to form a coalition with Merkel if she wins, Quartz reports.

The way this vote shapes up could go a long way in determining how Germany leads on social, economic, and political issues in Europe in the next four years.

Here’s everything you need to know

So, how does the German political system work? Germany — unlike other parliamentary democracies in the UK and France, for example — relies on a two-tiered voting system.

With the first vote, every German chooses a direct candidate from his/her respective constituency. These candidates make up half of the German Bundestag, which is akin to the British House of Commons or US House of Representatives.

But it’s the second vote that’s really the heart of the election.

In the second vote Germans vote for a party, rather than a representative. Party members are placed in the Bundestag in accordance with how many votes their party receives through this second vote.

There are 598 fixed seats in the Bundestag. Half of those, 299, are for the direct candidates. The rest is determined by the second vote.

First and second votes are sometimes cast for different parties. Because of this Germans invented the ‘overhang mandate.’

If, for example, a party is entitled to five seats won through the second vote, but won six seats through the first vote (direct candidates), they still get six seats, with the sixth seat referred to as an ‘overhang seat’.

This means that in reality the Bundestag consists of more than 598 members. The current Bundestag has currently 34 overhang seats, making for a total of 631 people in the Bundestag, a number that could increase this year.

Compared to other European countries, Germany’s Bundestag is still relatively small. The British House of Commons has 650 seats, while 630 politicians are sitting in the Italian Chamber of Deputies. Both countries have a smaller population than Germany.

What are the major parties?

In order to move into the Bundestag, a party needs at least five percent of the second votes. Currently six parties are expected to surpass this quota.

1/ Christian Democratic Union Germany (CDU) and Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU)

The Union (CDU and CSU) is the largest parliamentary group in the current Bundestag, with 309 seats. In principle, it represents conservative, Christian-social, and liberal values. Chancellor Angela Merkel has been the party leader since 2000.

What that means for Global Citizens:

The CDU is in favor of spending 0.7 percent of Gross National Income on development aid. They are also committed to a Marshall Plan for Africa, which aims to enable people in Africa to become entrepreneurs and to mobilize private investors for Africa.

2/ Social Democratic Party Germany (SPD)

The SPD is, in addition to the CDU, is one of the two large ‘Volksparteien’ (meaning ‘party of the people’) in Germany. They are a social, left-leaning party that emerged from the workers' movement. Together with the CDU / CSU they form the current governing coalition.

What that means for Global Citizens:

Compared to other parties, the SPD focuses the most on the topic of development aid in their election platform. The SPD is in favor of investing 0.7 per cent of GNI on development issues. In addition, the party wants to enforce that Germany follows the UN development goals at national level. According to the SPD, Germany should be a pioneer and achieve the targets by 2030 nationally. The party also believes that development cooperation should focus more on hunger and poverty areas.

3/ DIE LINKE (The Left)

DIE LINKE was created in 2007 as an offshoot of the SPD and a party called the PDS. DIE LINKE call themselves "feminist-social" and aim at overthrowing capitalism and introducing democratic socialism.

What that means for Global Citizens:

The Left wants a fundamental redirection of development aid and questions capitalist globalization. The party says it wants to tackle structural problems caused by the capitalist global economic order. They believe that development and food sovereignty in the Global South should be strengthened. They do, however, still believe that the target of spending 0.7 per cent of GNI on development aid should be maintained.

4/ Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen (Alliance 90 / The Greens)

The Alliance 90 / Greens party was formed when a formerly East German party (Alliance 90) joined with a West German one (The Greens). At their core, they stand for environmental policy and, among other things, have been fighting for the nuclear phase-out since their party’s foundation.

What that means for Global Citizens:

Alliance 90 / The Greens want to form a pact between the EU and Africa, support equitable agricultural and trade policies, and treat African producers fairly. They are also in favor of spending 0.7 percent of GNI on development aid.

5/ Free Democratic Party (FDP)

In 2013, the FDP did not make it back into the Bundestag after having previously ruled as a in coalition with the CDU. With their current top candidate Christian Lindner, the party now hopes to make a return, and experts are confident they may be able to do so. The FDP stands for a free market economy and the protection of individual rights.

What that means for Global Citizens:

According to their election platform, the FDP wants to implement the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. In principle, however, they believe development aid policy should look different, and that in the long term, three percent of GNI should flow into the field of international security. They do not support the target of spending 0.7% of GNI on foreign aid.

6/ Alternative for Germany (AfD)

The party emerged in 2013 as a pan-European and right-wing party. In the past two years, the AfD has gained notoriety for its strong response to the influx of refugees in Germany. In the past, some members of the party have drawn attention for making right-wing extremist and racist statements.

What that means for Global Citizens:

The sustainable development goals and the aim of spending 0.7% of GNI on development aid are not mentioned in their platform. Their platform includes some passages that might suggest a broader development aid policy shift, in which aid is leveraged as a means to pressure other countries to take back migrants and refugees.