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A voter casts his ballot at the polling station (photo: Kai Pfaffenbach)
Image: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach

Millions not represented?

Volker Wagener / ai
September 26, 2013

Some 7 million German voters cast their ballots for parties that never made it into parliament. How can 16 percent of voters not have their choices represented in parliament?


The controversy is over one clause in Germany's electoral law. It's the one that says a party has to have at least five percent of the vote to be able to take seats in parliament. In the 2013 German election, it led to an unprecedented number of votes being not represented.

The business-friendly, free-market liberal Free Democrats got some 4.8 percent of the vote, meaning that Merkel's junior coalition partner of the past four years won't make it to parliament for the next term. The euro critics of the AfD (Alternative for Germany) were rather successful in their first electoral campaign winning 4.7 percent of the vote but also failed to pass the 5 percent threshold. Their votes won't be represented by members of parliament and neither will the ones cast for other small parties like the Pirate party, the Animal Protection Party, or party that represents senior citizens' interests.

Christian Ströbele (photo: Maurizio Gambarini/dpa)
Ströbele said the threshold should be loweredImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Since German reunification in 1990, in the past six elections there's been an average of 5 percent of votes that didn't get represented as they were for parties that failed to make the 5 percent threshold. This time, this number of votes without representation has tripled to 16 percent - or about 7 million votes. Now, there's protest against the electoral law dating back to 1949.

An undemocratic parliament?

The threshold, which exists at a number of levels in over 30 countries around the world, has been controversial in Germany for quite some time. Christian Ströbele of the Green party said it's "democratically problematic" and is calling for lowering the threshold down to 2 percent or 3 percent. The lawyer and member of parliament indirectly criticized Germany's Constitutional Court, which has upheld the threshold as a guarantee for a working parliament. This was a higher good than the exact representation of the votes, the court argued.

It's a perception shared by Wolfgang Bosbach of Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democratic Union: "The 5 percent threshold was introduced after the experiences in the Weimar Republic when there had been no such clause. That meant that there were sometimes as many as 17 parties in parliament, which made it impossible to form a stable government that would last for an entire term."

Essentially, the threshold helps create stabile government coalitions able to serve their entire term and prevents small parties from gaining too much influence in the process of creating a governing coalition, Bosbach told DW.

German Economy Minister and Chairman of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) Philipp Roesler (L) (photo: JOHN MACDOUGALL)
Last term the Free Democrats were Merkel's junior partners, next term they're not even in parliamentImage: Getty Images

A need for reform?

The fear of a fractured parliament with many smaller parties is rooted in the Weimar Republic, but past years have actually taught a somewhat different lesson. For the Bonn political scientist Ulrich Battis, it's high time for a change to the electoral law. Germany has been a stable democracy for more than 60 years and the 5 percent threshold has already been done away with for some local elections.

Battis is not alone with his perception. Political scientist Frank Decker also said he sees an infringement of the equality at the ballot box. The current electoral system certainly is questionable, he added. And expert on constitutional law, Hans-Peter Schneider said the Constitutional Court should once again look into the matter.

Wolfgang Bosbach (photo: Karlheinz Schindler)
Wolfgang Bosbach believes the lessons from the Weimar Republic still standImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The bottom line is that parties that almost seven million people voted for are not represented in parliament which in turn means that the parties that do make it receive a larger share of seats. Political scientist Hans Herbert describes those voters as "losing their vote twice" as they watch the parties they support be excluded from parliament and the parties they did not vote for have greater influence.

Tactical vote

Critics of the 5 percent threshold also say it can distort voters' interests. Voters who, for instance, are concerned about pensioners' issues will likely still vote for one of the larger parties with the hope that their concerns will get a little bit of attention. Casting their ballots for a niche party, on the other hand would lead to it not influence parliament at all. Knowledge of the threshold, therefore, has an impact on what people actually vote for tactical considerations rather than for the party that best represents their concerns.

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