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Why Germany's electoral system would turn the British vote upside down

National elections are approaching in Britain, and a big regional ballot follows a few days later in Germany, but the results in each country will be reached using different systems of representation.

A hand putting a ballot paper into a ballot box

Democracy has many forms; Germany's differs from Britain's

The extremely close race in the British general election is highlighting the differences between that country's first-past-the-post electoral system, and the model based on proportional representation here in Germany.

Buoyed by strong performances in recent televised debates between the candidates for the posts of prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), the country's traditional "third" party, the Liberal Democrats, has surged alongside the two main contenders, Labour and the Conservatives.

However, if the polls are correct, and if the British election were to take place today, should all three parties win roughly 30 percent of the vote, Britain's House of Commons would not have an even spread of politicians.

"If all the parties are around 30 percent, I would think that Labour would probably come out as the largest party - narrowly - over the Conservatives, with the Liberal Democrats having about 150 seats," Professor Steven Fielding, a political expert at the University of Nottingham, told Deutsche Welle.

"Because of our crazy system, it's very difficult to be precise, but Labour and the Conservatives would probably win something upwards of 250 seats."

So three parties separated by statistically insignificant sums in most opinion polls could easily end up with vastly different levels of representation in parliament.

Britain's Liberal Democrats party leader, Nick Clegg

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The winner takes it all

Britain's first-past-the-post system means the country's election boils down to 650 individual skirmishes for the various constituencies around the country. Whichever party wins the most of these battles will have the most seats in parliament; the national spread of voting - on which pollsters usually concentrate - is effectively irrelevant.

"We give the first-past-the-post system the nickname: 'the winner takes it all,' says Jared Sonnicksen from the University of Bonn. "But you could just as well invert that and say 'the loser loses all.' Being in second place doesn't help you at all, you're the first loser."

"Because of how the system works, you have to win the constituency or you don't get anything."

Britain's Liberal Democrats are all too aware of this problem. They are the second strongest party in many constituencies, but rarely strongest. Their voters are too evenly spread across the country, whereas the Conservatives and Labour have "strongholds" around the nation, as well as constituencies where they are never in the running.

Not surprisingly, the Liberal Democrats have been calling for years for a proportional representation system - one in which parties are allocated seats according to their share of the national vote - but, equally unsurprisingly, they never get much support from their opponents who hold most of the parliamentary votes.

Mixing it up

Germany tries to marry the first-past-the-post and proportional representation systems, using a "two-vote system."

Voters cast one ballot directly for the person they would like to be in charge of their constituency, and then a second vote for the party they favor overall.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and Free Democrat leader/Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle

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Directly elected candidates all go to parliament, filling roughly half of the available seats.

The remaining seats are split between all the parties in such a way as to make the overall balance in parliament representative of the complete public vote. The only exception to this aggregate system affects fringe parties, who must attain a minimum of five percent of the overall vote to be eligible to be represented in parliament - unless one of their candidates is directly elected to represent a constituency.

This rule is designed to help safeguard against the biggest problem with proportionally representative voting, the danger of a fragmented, powerless parliament.

"The weakness of mixed election systems is an issue of accountability," politics professor Thomas Gschwend from the University of Mannheim explains. "You vote for a particular party and after the election, in the negotiation round when they try to form coalitions, one party can blame the other for not doing something."

"It's much easier in the first-past-the-post system because the one that gets the majority usually runs a single party government.

Change on the horizon?

However, judging by current opinion polls in the UK, the first-past-the-post system might fail to deliver a strong parliament on May 6.

The Liberal Democrats' surge in popularity looks set to weaken the Conservatives and Labour to the extent that than neither may secure more than half of Britain's 650 parliamentary seats.

Labour has already advocated a change towards an election system similar to Germany's in its manifesto, while the Liberal Democrats would prefer an even stronger move away from directly electing polticians, and most analysts expect that, in the case of a "hung parliament" (a system where no party has a parliamentary majority on its own), these are the two parties most likely to form an alliance.

Professor Fielding from Nottingham University believes the UK might be ready to modernize its voting system, which is one of the oldest in the world.

"The British system comes out of a time when the electorate was treated more like children than adults," Fielding said.

Author: Mark Hallam
Editor: Susan Houlton

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