Bye bye, Angie! On Sept. 26, Germans will head to the polls to elect a new parliament in their 2021 federal elections.

The importance of these elections can’t be underestimated. After 16 years (!) as chancellor, Angela Merkel (Christian Democratic Union, CDU) will not be running for chancellery again. 

In her 16 years in office, Merkel has been confronted with some of the world's toughest challenges, ranging from the financial crisis starting in 2007, to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011, the influx of refugees in 2015 to the currently raging COVID-19 pandemic. For more than a decade, she has become one of the most experienced and influential world leaders on the international stage and played a significant role in shaping the European Union as well as putting emphasis on strengthening international cooperation.

So what's new for this year’s election?

The Green party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) is probably causing the biggest news. According to polls, the party could catapult itself from sixth to second place in the upcoming federal election - and thus even fight for the leadership of the country for the first time in the party's history. Annalena Baerbock, who has been the federal chairwoman of the Green Party together with Robert Habeck since January 2018, was recently nominated as the first Green candidate for the office of chancellor and is now vying for the highest political office in the country. 

Here’s everything you need to know

Germany — unlike other parliamentary democracies such as in the UK — relies on a two-tiered voting system.

With the first vote, every German citizen aged 18 or above chooses a direct candidate from his/her respective district. The candidate winning the most votes in the district is then awarded a seat in parliament. Direct representatives make up half of the German Bundestag, which is akin to the British House of Commons or the US House of Representatives.

But it’s the second vote that’s really at the heart of the election. With the second vote Germans vote for a party, rather than a direct representative. The result of the second vote determines the share of seats each party gets in parliament. To put it simply, if a party wins 30% of the second vote, it is awarded at least 30% of seats in parliament. However, the minimum threshold for a party to enter parliament is 5% .

First and second votes can be cast for different parties, meaning that it is possible, for example, to vote for the direct candidate of the Social Democratic party while voting the Green Party with your second vote. This can lead to a situation where the number of seats won by a party through the first vote, surpasses the total share of seats it secured through the second vote. For this situation, Germans invented the ‘overhang’ seats. 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’.

These, in turn, unbalance the relationship between the parties. That's why ‘equalizing mandates’ were introduced in 2013: Members of parliament are placed on the scales until the balance between the parties is restored. 

More justice therefore leads to more seats and thus to a larger Bundestag. A total of 709 members sit in the 19th German Bundestag, 31 percent of whom are female. Only from the state of Bremen did women make up the larger proportion (67 percent). 

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. In principle, it represents conservative, Christian-social, and liberal values. Chancellor Angela Merkel has been the party leader since 2000. Her successor is Armin Laschet who will be the party’s candidate for chancellor of Germany.

2/ Social Democratic Party Germany (SPD)
The SPD is a ‘Volkspartei’ (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 and is one of the three strongest parties.

3/ 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.

4/ DIE LINKE (The Left)
DIE LINKE was created in 2007 as an offshoot of the SPD and a party called the PDS. The party calls itself a "socialist party" that wants to overcome the current economic and societal system and introduce democratic socialism.

5/ Free Democratic Party (FDP)
The FDP stands for a free market economy and the protection of individual rights. Since 2017 after a short absence, the party is back at the Bundestag. 

6/ Alternative for Germany (AfD)
The party emerged in 2013 as a German nationalist and right-wing populist political party. It is known for its opposition to the European Union and immigration. In the 2017 federal election they became the third-largest party in Germany. In the past, some members of the party have drawn attention for making right-wing extremist and racist statements.

What happens after voting?

Coalitions among the parties are quite the norm in Germany, as they would have to win more than 50% of the mandates. That means that two or more competing parties will form a coalition to govern together. However, the other parties have said they would not enter a coalition with the AfD. 

The top candidate from the party with the most votes will usually forge the coalition. The newly-elected members of the parliament will then approve the candidate for chancellor in a secret ballot. 

The election in Germany will have consequences that will reach far beyond the country, as Merkel’s successor will have a huge influence over how Germany positions itself as a leading power. 


Demand Equity

The Global Citizen Guide to the German General Elections

By Jana Sepehr