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Election guide

July 25, 2012

On the surface, the German electoral system is similar to that of most other Western countries, although it does have its own quirks and peculiarities. DW explains.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa

When Germans go to their polling stations - often in schools or other public buildings - they select candidates for parliament with marks on a multiple-choice ballot. But when it comes to tallying the ballots, it's a whole different ballpark.

Under Germany's parliamentary system, considerations other than the checkmark come into play in determining the final makeup of the Bundestag - including things like 5 percent clauses, "overhang seats" and first and second votes.

But the most important difference is that Germans don't elect their chancellor directly. Instead, they elect parties, and the parties gaining the majority of seats in the Bundestag then elect the chancellor.

German citizens aged 18 and over are eligible to vote as long as they have lived in the country for at least three months. Naturalized Germans can also vote or run for office after they have been citizens for at least one year.

Generally speaking, voter turnout tends to be high in Germany, but the trend is negative. In the 2009 election, 72,2 percent of eligible citizens cast votes.

The one person, two vote system

There are currently 620 seats in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag. Each German is allowed to cast two votes - the first going to their constituency and the second going to a party's state list, which can contain between 10 and 30 candidates.

The system is often referred to as "personalized proportional representation" because the parliament's makeup is determined by both votes for direct candidates and those on the state party lists, which are voted for on the basis of the party rather than the candidate.

The first vote, which is for direct candidates running in each of Germany's 299 electoral districts, determines half of the parliament's total composition, ensuring that each district is represented.

The second vote determines the Bundestag's majority, as the overall proportion of "aye" ballots each party gets in the second vote determines how many candidates from that state list will be granted seats in the Bundestag.

Historically, the first and second votes have almost always been proportionately identical, but there are times when a party will gain more seats through the first than the second. In such instances, the party may keep the so-called "overhang" seats from the first vote.

a person casting a ballot
The Bundestag gets elected every four yearsImage: dapd

This usually benefits the large parties, especially the CDU.

The 5 percent clause

Under German election law, parties must obtain a minimum of 5 percent of the second votes. The law was first introduced in 1953 and was intended to prevent tiny splinter parties like those that plagued the Weimar Republic from entering into parliament. In recent years, it has kept far-right and extremist political parties like the National Democratic Party out of the Bundestag.

However, an exception is granted to parties that field winning candidates in at least three electoral districts or for candidates belonging to a recognized German minority, like the Danish in Schleswig-Holstein or the Sorbs in Saxony.

Building a coalition and electing a chancellor

If a party gains 50 percent of the seats in government, it would then effectively have enough votes to set its own agenda. But in a fragmented parliamentary system - at least compared to Britain and the United States where two parties dominate - that is unlikely to happen. For that reason, parties in Germany usually need to partner with one or more parties in order to build a coalition with enough votes to control the Bundestag.

Traditionally, the chancellor candidate of the party gaining the most votes will become chancellor and the leading candidate of the junior-coalition partner is often tapped to become foreign minister.

After the election results are final, parliament has 14 days to officially elect its chancellor.

Under normal circumstances, elections happen again four years later, and then it's back to square one.