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Election basics: From the vote to replacing Merkel

September 23, 2021

Germans go to the polls this Sunday to elect a new Bundestag parliament, which will then determine who replaces Chancellor Angela Merkel. But who can vote? And who can be elected? Here are the main facts.

Reichstag building with German national flag
Germans will go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliamentImage: Winfried Rothermel/picture alliance

For 16 years, Chancellor Angela Merkel has headed a government led by her center-right Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU). Young voters can't even remember any other chancellor. Now the 67-year-old is stepping down and the CDU/CSU is struggling in the polls, amid extensive squabbling about the future of the party and its leader.

Voting starts on Sunday at 8 a.m. local time. Some 650,000 volunteers will be posted at 88,000 polling stations across the country to hand out ballots and help with the counting once polls close at 6 p.m.

How do German elections work?

Who is up for election?

No one will directly elect the chancellor on Sunday. Instead, members of the parliament, the Bundestag, are running to win a seat for the next four-year term.

It is these representatives who will later elect a chancellor to head a new government.

The German election system is a style of proportional representation. This means that each voter has two votes.

The first vote directly decides a candidate in each of the 299 electoral districts in a first-past-the-post system. This ensures that every district and every region has a representative in parliament. Candidates must be German citizens over the age of 18. Individuals without party affiliation can also run. To do so, they must have 200 signatories from their respective constituency supporting their candidacy.

The second vote is used to elect a party, and determines the makeup of the Bundestag.

Infografik Sitzverteilung Bundestag bevor Wahl 2021 EN

It's not possible to predict exactly how large the future parliament will be, due to the difference between the number of directly elected representatives and the results of the second vote.

How many parties are there?

In total, there are 47 parties taking part in the election this year. To win representation in parliament as a group, a party needs to pass the 5% threshold or have three directly elected candidates.

The CDU/CSU, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), the pro-free market Free Democrats (FDP), the environmentalist Green Party, the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the socialist Left Party have been represented in parliament over the last four years. All are expected to maintain their presence in the body, in some form or another.

Older Germans call the shots at ballot box

Who can vote?

All those who are at least 18 years old, have German citizenship and have lived in Germany for "an uninterrupted period of at least three months" can vote. Germans living abroad can vote by mail upon request. However, people who hold a German passport but who have not lived in the country for more than 25 years cannot take part.

According to the Federal Statistical Office around 60.4 million Germans are eligible to cast a ballot in this election, with the number of enfranchised women (31.2 million) higher than men (29.2 million). During the last election in 2017, some 61.7 million people were eligible to vote.

Over the last four years, around 2.8 million first-time voters have turned 18 — 4.6% of the entire electorate. In comparison, 21.3% of the electorate is aged 70 or above.

Voter turnout in German federal elections is typically higher than in state and local elections. The highest turnout ever occurred in 1972, with 91.1% turning out to reelect SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt. The lowest turnout in 2009 (70.8%), Merkel's second election win. In general, more people took part in elections in the years leading up to the early 1980s than in the decades that followed; voter turnout is traditionally seen as an expression of engagement with politics.

Young and without a voice?

Why isn't voting compulsory?

Compulsory voting has occasionally been a topic of discussion among lawmakers, but it has been seen as contradictory to the freedom to decide whether and how to vote.

When the East German civil rights campaigner Joachim Gauck became president of Germany on March 18, 2012, the 72-year-old used his inaugural speech to recall the first time he took part in a free, democratic election — exactly 22 years earlier, on March 18, 1990.

"That was a great Sunday," Gauck said. "After 56 years of dictatorship, millions of us East Germans could be citizens for the first time … Beyond the joy of that moment, I was certain of one thing: That I would never — never — miss an election. I had been forced to wait too long for the joy of participation to ever forget the powerlessness that goes with oppression."

How does Germany guarantee a fair election?

Only official ballot papers are permitted for voting — online voting is not possible.

Just once, in the 2005 Bundestag election, more than 1 million people had the option of voting by computer. The Federal Constitutional  Court later ruled that the use of voting computers contradicted the principle of the public nature of the election and was unconstitutional. In light of suspected hacker attacks — or attempted attacks — on electronic elections in other countries, concerns about electronic voting have increased in recent years, encouraging Germany to maintain its practice.  

Fake news on the German election debunked

There are strict guidelines in place for in-person and mail-in voting: all ballots must have arrived before 6 p.m. on election day. But, since elections are a public procedure in Germany, anyone and everyone can visit a polling station throughout the day until after the votes have been counted.

Those visitors include experts from the 57 member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who have monitored each election since 2009.

When will results be known?

Exit polls are published right after polling places close at 6 p.m.

This is followed by projections, once the first votes have actually been counted. They are updated as counting continues into the early hours of the following morning, when a provisional result is published. The official results won't be published, however, until several weeks later.

And that's not necessarily the end — election results can be contested.

Images of a chancellor

Is Merkel still chancellor after the vote?

The newly elected Bundestag must convene within 30 days after the vote. But this doesn't mean there will be a new government by then.

After the election, preparatory exploratory talks begin between the parties. These then turn into real coalition talks with the aim of forging a majority government. The process can take several months.

The new government takes power when the Bundestag has elected a chancellor with an absolute majority of over 50%. The chancellor then names the cabinet ministers, and when all of them have officially been appointed by the president and have been sworn in, the new government takes office.

Until then, Merkel will remain in office in a caretaker role.

This article has been translated from German

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C