Election Resources on the Internet:
Elections to the German Bundestag
by Manuel Álvarez-Rivera

Germany held its 19th Bundestag election on Sunday, September 24, 2017. A description of the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) election system used in the Federal Republic of Germany since 1949 is presented here; Germany's Reformed Electoral System, on Electoral Panorama, has additional information about the Bundestag seat allocation mechanism introduced in 2013.

Federal- and state-level results are available here (and also in CSV format) for the following Bundestag elections:

      September 24, 2017       Results       Election Map      
      September 22, 2013       Results       Election Map      
      September 27, 2009       Results       Election Map      
      September 18, 2005       Results       Election Map      
      September 22, 2002       Results       Election Map      
      September 27, 1998       Results       Election Map      
      October 16, 1994       Results       Election Map      
      December 2, 1990       Results       Election Map      
      January 25, 1987       Results       Election Map      
      March 6, 1983       Results       Election Map      
      October 5, 1980       Results       Election Map      
      October 3, 1976       Results       Election Map      
      November 19, 1972       Results       Election Map      
      September 28, 1969       Results       Election Map      
      September 19, 1965       Results       Election Map      
      September 17, 1961       Results       Election Map      
      September 15, 1957       Results       Election Map      
      September 6, 1953       Results       Election Map      
      August 14, 1949       Results       Election Map      

The election statistics presented in this space come from official reports and data files issued by the Federal Returning Officer.

May 22-25, 2014 European election results are available here. In addition, Germany's Federal Returning Officer has detailed results in German and English of the 2014 European election in Germany.

Historical Background

The constitutional and electoral arrangements in the Federal Republic of Germany have as their fundamental goal the safeguarding of democracy against a recurrence of totalitarianism, Nazi or otherwise. There were several reasons for which the Weimar Republic of 1919-33 succumbed to the right-wing extremism of Adolf Hitler: a lack of legitimacy among important sectors of German society, a flawed constitution, and finally an electoral law based upon a very extreme implementation of proportional representation (PR), which guaranteed parliamentary representation to even the smallest of political groups, and in turn produced highly fragmented legislatures in which it was very difficult to form stable coalitions.

As a result, the electoral law introduced for the 1949 parliamentary elections, although based once again upon the principle of PR, required political parties to receive at least five percent in at least one of the Länder - the states of the Federal Republic - in order to participate in the proportional allocation of seats. Nevertheless, twelve parties found their way to the legislature. As a result, for the 1953 election the five percent threshold was set at the federal level, and the number of parties represented in the legislature dropped to seven. A further reform in 1956 introduced an initial nationwide allocation of seats, originally by the d'Hondt or largest average method, from 1985 to 2008 by the Niemeyer variant of the largest remainder system (detailed below), and beginning in 2009 by the Sainte-Laguë/Schepers method.

By 1961 there were just four parties with legislative representation, a figure that remained unchanged for more than two decades. Since 1990, there have been six parties represented in Parliament. Nonetheless, two major parties, the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) have dominated the German political landscape since 1949. Except for the 1966-69 and the current CDU/CSU-SPD Grand Coalition governments, all German governments since the establishment of the Federal Republic have been coalitions of either of these two parties with one (or more) of the smaller parties. For many years the balance of power was held by the small, liberal Free Democratic Party (F.D.P.), which stood ideologically between the two large parties, and was in the position of providing either with the absolute majority neither could attain by itself. However, from 1998 to 2005 the country was ruled by a coalition of the SPD and Alliance 90/The Greens, with the CDU/CSU, the F.D.P. and the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) in opposition.

The 2005 general election - held a year early after German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder deliberately lost a vote of confidence in the Bundestag - did not produce a decisive outcome, as the ruling SPD-Alliance 90/The Greens coalition lost its parliamentary majority, but the CDU/CSU and its ally, the F.D.P., failed to secure a majority between themselves. Although the Left Party alliance of the PDS and the Labor and Social Justice Party (WASG) held the balance of power between the existing blocs, the SPD ruled out any kind of deal with the left-wing alliance. Moreover, attempts to form either a CDU/CSU-F.D.P.-Alliance 90/The Greens "Jamaica" coalition (so named for the colors of the Jamaican flag and the parties involved, respectively black, yellow and green) or a SPD-F.D.P.-Alliance 90/The Greens "traffic light" coalition (red-yellow-green) proved unsuccessful, leaving as the only alternative a Grand Coalition government between the SPD and the CDU/CSU. After several weeks of painstaking negotiations, in November 2005 the two major parties finally reached an agreement under which CDU leader Angela Merkel became Germany's first-ever female Chancellor, but the SPD retained a majority of Cabinet posts in the new government.

The CDU/CSU-SPD Grand Coalition government remained in office until the 2009 Bundestag election, in which CDU/CSU topped the poll with a reduced share of the vote - the next-to-lowest figure for the two parties since 1949 - while the Social Democrats sank to their worst result in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. Chancellor Merkel subsequently formed a majority coalition government with F.D.P., which had its best result ever in the election.

In the 2013 general election CDU/CSU won a decisive victory over SPD, which scored minor gains but still polled its second-worst result since 1949. However, F.D.P. - CDU/CSU's coalition partner - slipped below the five percent threshold needed to secure parliamentary representation, and lost all its seats in the Bundestag for the first time ever, leaving Chancellor Merkel without an overall legislative majority. Meanwhile, the Greens became Germany's third largest party for the first time ever, even though they lost ground in the election. Chancellor Merkel formed a CDU/CSU-SPD coalition government in December 2013, following almost three months of talks plus an internal vote among SPD members, who overwhelmingly backed the agreement with the Union parties.

The Electoral System

The Parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) consists of a lower house, the Bundestag, whose members are directly elected by universal adult suffrage, and an upper house, the Bundesrat, composed of representatives appointed by the Länder. The two bodies are not coequal chambers, with the Bundestag being the more powerful of the two.

The Bundestag is composed of 598 members elected for a four-year term of office. Prior to the German reunification of 1990 (in which the Länder of the German Democratic Republic were incorporated into the FRG), there were 496 seats in the chamber: for the post-reunification legislative elections held in 1990, 160 seats were added to represent the new Länder and Berlin, for a total of 656 seats. In 2002 the number of seats in the Bundestag was reduced to the current number.

The composition of the Bundestag is determined by the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system - also known as personalized proportional representation - which combines elements of the single-member constituency plurality system with PR. Under this system, the country is divided into a number of single-member constituencies (Wahlkreisen) equal to half the total amount of seats in the Bundestag. There were 248 of these constituencies between 1957 and 1987, 328 between 1990 and 1998, and 299 since 2002. These constituencies are allocated among the Länder in proportion to the size of their populations, and seats are filled by the plurality or first-past-the-post method, under which the candidate obtaining the largest number of votes in each constituency is elected.

However, in addition to nominating individual candidates for the direct mandate (Direktmandate) elections at the constituency level, political parties set up lists of individuals at the Land level (Landesliste). Each German casts two votes, namely a first vote (Erststimme) for a constituency candidate, and a second vote (Zweitstimme) for a party list. Party lists are closed, so electors may not choose individual candidates in or alter the order of such lists. Of the two votes, the second vote is the most important, since it is the one that determines the composition of the Bundestag.

In order to participate in the proportional allocation of Bundestag seats, a party must receive at least five percent of all valid second votes cast; however, this requirement is waived if a party wins three or more constituency seats. For the 1990 election only, a special arrangement was set up by which Germany was divided in two electoral zones, one comprising the pre-reunification FRG, plus West Berlin, the other being the area of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Any party that secured five percent of the vote in either area was entitled to participate in the federal distribution of seats, even if its national share of second votes was below the standard five percent threshold.

From 1985 until 2008 (when the electoral law was reformed to introduce the Sainte-Laguë/Schepers method of PR, effective as of 2009), Bundestag seats were apportioned among qualifying parties by means of the Niemeyer variation of the largest remainder method of PR. To determine how many seats each party was to receive, its total number of second votes was divided by the aggregate sum of second votes cast for all qualifying parties, and this amount was multiplied by the total number of Bundestag seats to be allocated. This operation produced a whole number, which was the number of seats initially allocated to the party, and a decimal fraction. Once this calculation was performed for all qualifying parties, the sum or aggregate number of allocated seats was obtained: if this total was equal to the number of Bundestag seats, the proportional allocation of seats at the federal level was concluded. On the other hand, if this total was smaller than the total number of seats to be allocated - as it was usually the case - unallocated seats were awarded to the parties according to the descending order of their decimal fractions.

The mandates obtained by each party were then allocated at the Land level in proportion to the number of votes received by their Land lists. The direct mandates won by a party at the constituency level of a particular Land were then subtracted from the total number of seats allocated to that party's list, and the remaining seats were filled by the candidates on the Land list in the order determined before the election. In some instances, a party won more constituency seats in the first vote of a particular Land than the number of seats it was entitled to according to the result of the second vote. In such cases, the party kept the overhang or surplus seats (Überhangmandate), and the total number of seats in the Bundestag was increased accordingly.

However, in 2008 Germany's Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the allocation mechanism used to distribute Bundestag seats was unconstitutional, due to the fact that overhang seats can introduce an effect known as "negative vote weight," under which winning more second votes can cause a party to lose a seat, and vice versa. The Court gave Parliament until 2011 to change the system; nevertheless, a government-sponsored electoral reform enacted in November of that year was declared unconstitutional by the Court in 2012. As a result, in 2013 Parliament passed a new electoral reform which introduces additional adjustment seats (Ausgleichsmandate) to achieve a fully proportional allocation of Bundestag mandates among qualifying parties, thus neutralizing any disparities resulting from the allocation of overhang seats.

Under the reformed system, all 598 Bundestag seats are allocated among the Länder in proportion to the size of their German population. Then, a non-binding allocation of seats among qualifying parties is carried out in each Land by the Sainte-Laguë/Schepers method of PR; if a party wins more constituency seats in the first vote of a particular Land than the number of seats it would be entitled to according to the result of the second vote, it keeps the overhang seats. The nationwide seat total obtained by each qualifying party after adding up the results from all sixteen Länder is the minimum number of mandates the party is entitled to receive, and the size of the Bundestag is adjusted accordingly, so that each qualifying party secures at least its corresponding minimum seat total, but in a way such that the distribution of seats equals the nationwide allocation of mandates in the expanded Bundestag by the Sainte-Laguë/Schepers method.

From this point forward, the system generally operates in the same way as before: the mandates obtained by each party are allocated at the Land level in proportion to the number of votes received by their Land lists; the direct mandates won by a party at the constituency level of a particular Land are then subtracted from the total number of seats allocated to that party's list; and the remaining seats are filled by the candidates on the Land list in the order determined before the election. Nonetheless, if a party wins more constituency seats in the first vote of a particular Land than the number of seats it would be entitled to according to the result of the second vote, the distribution of seats among the party's Land lists is adjusted so that each list is allocated at least its corresponding number of constituency seats, without changing the party's nationwide seat total.

Allocation of Seats in the 1998 Bundestag Election

Allocation of Seats in the 2002 Bundestag Election

MMP in Perspective

In the course of the last six decades, MMP has effectively eliminated the problem of parliamentary fragmentation in Germany, producing stable coalition governments, as well as keeping typically small extremist groups out of the legislature. That said, it should not be assumed that the system will always produce parliamentary exclusion of such groups, for in difficult economic times, these may find considerable electoral support, even without prior parliamentary representation, at it has been the case in a number of state elections held in recent years.

Finally, it is worth noting that a number of countries around the world have adopted the German system for parliamentary elections, most notably among them New Zealand, where voters approved the switch from the first-past-the-post system to MMP in a 1993 referendum.

Online Resources

Copyright © 2002-2017 Manuel Álvarez-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.
Last update: November 22, 2017.