The German parliamentary election took place yesterday and I’m finally writing something about it! This post comes in three sections: A crash course on Germany’s government; interesting things I got to do thanks to the election; miscellaneous thoughts.
1| Germany’s Governmental Structure
Germany is a federal, democratic republic that was established in 1949 with the writing of the Grundgesetz or “basic law.” Power is shared between the central government and the local governments of the 16 Bundesländer (states). The central government is comprised of two houses, the Bundestag and Bundesrat, of which the President (head of state) and the Chancellor (head of government) are the executives.
The Bundestag has 709 members who are elected for four-year terms via a mixed member proportional representation process. The ballots are divided into two sections, Erstestimme and Zweitestimme (first-vote and second-vote), for which voters make independent choices. The first-vote directly elects a representative from that district to the Bundestag (299 districts = 299 representatives). The remaining Bundestag seats are allotted to parties based the percentage of the second-vote they receive. A party must attain 5% to be granted seats in the Bundestag. The Bundestag then elects the Chancellor for a four-year term, however there is no term limit. Angela Merkel has been Chancellor since 2005.
The Bundesrat has 69 members who are members of state cabinets. Each state may send 3-6 members, based on population, and may switch or remove those representatives at any time. A state’s delegation is typically headed by the Minister Präsident (president of the state government). The Bundesrat is headed by President and primarily has ability to veto legislation passed in the Bundestag that affects state powers.
Political Parties: brief descriptions of all that won Bundestag seats and what percent of the vote they received.
CDU/CSU Christian Democratic Union: centre-right; socially conservative; strong European integration; Angela Merkel; 33%
SPD Social-democratic Party of Germany: centre-left; social democracy; appeals to working-class; Martin Schulz; 20%
AfD Alternative for Germany: far-right nationalism; est. 2013; 12%
FDP Free Democratic Party: left; economically and socially liberal; 10%
Die Grünen The Green Party: environmental concerns and sustainable development; pacifism; 9%
Die Linke The Left: socialism; if Bernie Sanders was a German; 9%
2| The Campaigns
The election that took place yesterday was for the Bundestag, and now that you (hopefully) knows what that means, sharing all the interesting political events I observed will be more interesting and make a little bit more sense!
10.09.17 SPD Sommerfest: A free event held in a park just outside of Freiburg. Picnic table, games for kids, food, beer, and music accompanied a conversation with perspective Bundestag members Julien Bender and Jonas Hoffman.
16.09.17 Martin Schulz: The SPD candidate for chancellor spoke near the university square. Live music (political rap in German this time!) and interviews with Bundestag members began the event until Martin Schulz entered to the sound of “Viva la Vida.” He focused heavily on Gerechtigkeit (justice) in domestic politics while emphasizing his work with the EU. Although he made jabs at Merkel, none were particularly sharp.
18.09.17 Angela Merkel: Held at the Münsterplatz and attracting a far larger crowd, this was an unforgettable experience. She focused more on international politics (although mentioning Trump far less) and stressed the role Germany plays. Social Security expansion and technological development were other focuses. There were no spiteful or attacking words, Schulz was never one mentioned by name, and the focus was on the issues. Incredibly well-spoken, diplomatic, strong, and inspiring.
An Assortment of Other Campaign Posters: Posters are absolutely everywhere and they all look kind of the same. The green bag in the third picture was given to me at the Münster Market by the Green Party candidate Kerstin Andrae herself! Again, positive campaigning, what a novel idea!
Politics in Germany are local. Candidates talk to their constituents, even the Chancellor of 12 years with a shoe-in victory talks to her constituents. It’s normal here and requires far less security than in the US. People here are also far more open to talking about politics and seem more aware of what issues affect them.
Politics in Germany are civil. For the most part, the issues of pertinence come first. For a class project, I and a few classmates asked Germans on the street about the upcoming election, and all conversations we had were entirely civil. There was also no talk of competence or fitness to lead because of things said or done by the two primary candidates.
Politics in the United States are neither. Our presidential election was focused on holding big events, keeping distance between candidate and constituent, and prioritizing defamation over discussion. People in the US were shocked and confused by the result, and, surprise, Germans are also baffled. They also really don’t understand the Electoral College and when asked for thoughts on American politics, the number one response was ‘How can someone who gets more votes not win the election?’ You got me on that one, Germany. If you’re curious, the second most popular response was ‘Well you guys were fine with Obama.’ Stimmt.
Side note: we really ought to stop trusting polls. ‘Trump will never win,’ ‘Britain would never actually leave the EU,’ ‘The AfD won’t get seats in the Bundestag.’ Right.
Overall, I am very grateful to have been here during the last month of campaigns. There are many more things I could, and probably will at some point, say about German vs. American politics, but I’ll leave it here for the day. Afterall, I am here for a year with the purpose of studying political science, German, and international relations!