What can we learn from the German elections?

This October, for the first time in 16 years, Angela Merkel will not be at the helm of the German government. In 2018, Merkel announced she would step away from politics, and her party successor Armin Laschet did not fare well in the September elections. Merkel and Laschet’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), won only 24.1 percent of the vote, their worst result in party history. Narrowly edging out the CDU with 25.7 percent was the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), becoming Germany’s largest party for the first time since 2005. In third were the Greens, the German green party, with their best-ever result of 14.8 percent, capitalizing on increased environmental concerns likely due to the record flooding Germany experienced in July. 

Who actually takes the reins in Germany remains to be seen. Germany is a parliamentary republic, so these voting totals determine the number of seats allotted to each party in the Bundestag, the German parliament. Germans actually cast two votes each election to determine the composition of the Bundestag — one for a candidate in their district and the other for one of several political parties. The percentage of the party votes determines the number of additional seats each party will be able to fill. Once all of these seats are determined, a government must be formed by creating an absolute majority of over 50 percent of the parliament seats. With multiple parties splitting the vote, no single group can reach that mark alone, so coalitions are formed between parties to reach an absolute majority. 

While the SPD received the most votes, their leader Olaf Scholz is not guaranteed the Chancellorship until a coalition is secured. The CDU still has a chance to gain control by gaining the support of the Greens and the free-market focused Free Democratic Party (FDP), who together could push either the SPD or CDU into the majority. 

While the German system with its multiple votes and mix of parties may be just as confusing as our electoral college, to me, it represents more choice. With a multi-party system, gone are the binaries presented by Democrats and Republicans, and the system of proportional representation ensures that a vote for a minority party isn’t wasted as it would be in the U.S. This system makes the Greens, a party popular with younger generations in Germany, a viable voting option. In addition, coalitions incentivize the larger CDU and SPD to work with smaller parties, forcing collaboration. 

While the U.S. will not be adopting a proportional representation system, there are promising changes available, like ranked choice voting, which allows voters to rank their choice of several candidates. Maine adopted the system in 2016, and our very own SGA elections use the system here at St. Olaf. 

For the U.S., Germany’s election should prompt comparison and reflection on our elections. Germany’s result was razor thin, but it did not end in mass disinformation or violent revolt, giving us reason to pause and examine our own system and learn from our European friends.



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