The German election system explained

The German election system explained

by Anne Walther

Updated May 5, 2022

If you’ve been to Germany, you may have come across banners of politicians decorating local streetlights or maybe Germans discussing topics like the Bundestag and the Bundeskanzler. Indeed, politics play quite an important role in German culture –  for example, the daily public news show Tagesschau is watched by more than 11 million people. However, if German politics and the election system have never been explained to you, you might feel overwhelmed by the many names, roles and procedures. In this quick overview, we will tell you everything about the different members of the parliament, which types of elections are held and how to cast your vote in Germany.

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How voting in Germany works

Germans elect a new parliament once every four years. Election days are always held on Sundays or public holidays, to make sure that most people can find time to visit one of the many polling stations. During the last elections, 76% of Germans cast their two votes: the first Erststimme for a direct candidate from their electoral district, and the second Zweitstimme for a party list. 

The direct candidates are chosen by plurality vote, and each of the 299 German districts will have a seat in the parliament. All 598 parliamentary seats are, in addition, divided based on the Zweitstimme. This often results in parties having more direct candidates than seats they would be entitled to based on the final division of seats in the parliament. The direct candidates are still given a so-called overhang seat (Überhangmandate). This voting system explains why the current parliament counts 736 instead of 598 members.

The principles of elections in Germany

Germany’s constitution gives guidelines on how to vote. Citizens can choose their parliamentary delegates based on a general, direct, free, equal and secret choice. This means, for example, that any German of legal voting age can participate, that each vote has the same value and that voting has to be completely confidential. 

The constitution also determines who can stand for election and finally be, for example, the president or head of state. In principle, this can be any German citizen of legal age. In reality, of course, those who stand for election are often associated with a political party or are otherwise engaged in the political landscape. In addition, the detailed roles within the German government are decided by the voting of the members of the parliament.

The roles of the German government

The candidates chosen in the German elections become members of the German parliament, known as the Bundestag. This parliament represents the German citizens and is the legislative, or law-making, body of the country. Parties can cooperate with other parties in fractions, in order to support each other in voting processes when making laws. Such processes are run by the president of the Bundestag

The parliament members also elect the Chancellor of Germany, or Bundeskanzler (or Bundeskanzler*in). The Bundeskanzler is the head of state in Germany, and as a result, is a very public figure in Germany. Many German chancellors are still important in Germany because of their impact on the country.

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Different types of elections

In addition to the federal parliament elections, there are other regional types of elections. For example, each Bundesland or German state has its own parliament which is elected usually once every five years. Each district again has representatives elected, and on a yet more communal level, municipality elections are held. You can also vote for your mayor, and all European citizens vote for the European Parliament once every five years. All Germans above the age of 18 can vote and European citizens can participate in communal elections, as long as they are registered in the electoral roll at the municipality.

Could you be the next Bundeskanzler?

Well, who’s to say! Since every German citizen can become elected, you might already be on your path there. Now that we have explained the voting system, you will be able to join a conversation about German politics. And whether you will have a long stay in Germany or not, it is always a good idea to know your local political representatives. As we have seen, there are different types of elections that you can get involved in, and it is good to stay up to date on which ones are coming up. In addition, you get to meet people from your community – or start your career as the next Angela Merkel!

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Anne is a German freelance writer and communication consultant. In addition to her job, she is founder and coach of the Dutch non-for-profit organization CLUB Coaching. Due to her work, she resides in both Germany and the Netherlands. Whenever her time is not occupied with communication in all its forms, she spends time with her six pets, gardening or being creative with fashion and design. You can follow her on LinkedIn.

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