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The Chancellor of the Free World Faces Voters for Record Fourth Time

Germany Decides: Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, answers citizens' questions on the public broadcast ARD from the "Wahlarena" in Lübeck, Germany.  |  DANIEL REINHARDT/AFP/Getty Images

Germany held a general election on Sept. 24, which was followed globally. After three terms in office, Chancellor Angela Merkel landed another four years in government, but not without losing significant support to the far-right party. Visit our Germany Decides ​to learn about the candidates, how the German election system works, and the issues that were be decisive among voters in our coverage of the 2017 German election in partnership with Deutsche Welle.

As the United States and the United Kingdom descend deeper into political chaos, Germany is poised to reelect Angela Merkel to a record-tying fourth term. A cautious and technocratic leader, known for her unflappability and her signature diamond hand gesture, Merkel has emerged as Europe’s staunchest defender of the EU and the West’s most steadfast supporter of globalization. However, not everyone in Germany agrees with the Chancellor’s policies, and she faces persistent criticism from both the left and the right in advance of the federal election on Sept. 24. The results will undoubtedly be felt on both sides of the Atlantic as Germany is spearheading delicate negotiations for a U.S.-EU free trade agreement, which would have far-reaching consequences for the U.S. economy and the pocketbooks of American consumers.

Chancellor Merkel’s main opposition comes from Martin Schulz of the SPD, Germany’s Social Democratic Party. Schulz rose to international prominence during his five-year term as President of the European Parliament, which came to an end in January 2017. When Schulz declared his candidacy for chancellor shortly thereafter, polls showed the SPD neck and neck with Chancellor Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Since then, however, the CDU has opened up a sizeable 15-point lead following an abatement in the migrant crisis and a recent televised debate which has been widely seen as a victory for Merkel.

Part of Merkel’s success over the past 12 years has been her ability to adopt many policies that have originated on the political left. Although her efforts to combat global climate change and her pro-immigration stances have set her apart from other politicians of the right, the SPD has criticized Merkel on a variety of issues, ranging from growing economic inequality to Merkel’s lack of support for gay marriage.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and opponent Martin Schulz
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and opponent Martin Schulz. |  TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images

How is the German parliament elected?

While the CDU and the SPD are the two primary contenders in the upcoming election, the German electoral system gives greater weight to smaller political parties than does the American electoral system. On Sept. 24, Germans will cast two ballots for the national parliament, known as the Bundestag. The first ballot will be cast for their local representative, and the winner of a plurality of votes in each district will be declared the victor under a “first-past-the-post” system similar to the one used in the U.S. The second ballot will be cast for a national political party. The 299 members of the Bundestag will be seated based on the results of the first ballot while another 299 (plus any necessary “balance seats”) will be awarded proportionally to political parties based on their national total in the second ballot. This means that as long as a party clears the minimum threshold of 5 percent in the second ballot, it will be able to select members to serve in the Bundestag even if no single candidate wins a plurality in a particular district.

This rather complex system differs from its American counterpart in three crucial ways, each of which has profound implications for party politics and the structure of the federal government. First, Germany allows voters to express potentially divergent views of their own representative and national political parties. Without this system, the U.S. is faced with “Fenno’s paradox” with most Americans supportive of their own representative while Congress overall languishes at a 16 percent approval rate.

Second, the double ballot diminishes the potential effects of gerrymandering by awarding at least half of the seats in the Bundestag based on national vote totals. In the 2012 U.S. federal election, more Americans nationwide cast ballots for Democratic House candidates than for Republican candidates, yet Republicans won 234 seats to the Democrats’ 201.

Third, the greater representation given to smaller parties decreases the probability that either the CDU or the SPD will emerge from the election with the true majority of seats necessary to form a government and select a chancellor. Because of this, either the CDU or the SPD may be forced to form a coalition with one or more additional parties. Since 2013, Germany has been ruled by a so-called “grand coalition” of the CDU and the SPD, but the victor on Sept. 24 may instead choose to seek support from smaller parties. Whichever of the many possible colorful coalitions is chosen, any smaller parties brought into the government will most certainly expect concessions in the form of policy priorities and cabinet seats.

Which other parties are running?

The smaller parties in Germany which have the greatest chance to cross the 5 percent threshold and gain seats in the Bundestag are the Free Democratic Party (FDP), the Greens, the Left, and the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The FDP is a pro-business centrist party, which formed a ruling coalition with the CDU from 2009 until 2013, when it failed to reach the 5 percent threshold and embarrassingly lost all of its seats in the Bundestag. The Greens advocate for environmentally friendly and socially progressive policies and were last in a ruling coalition alongside Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schröder of the SPD. The Left traces its party history to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), which governed the former East Germany as a single-party state.

The newest major party on the German political scene is the Alternative for Germany, founded in 2013 and known for its controversial anti-immigration views as well as recent remarks on the Berlin Holocaust Memorial seen by many as anti-Semitic. Despite these scandals, the AfD has struck a cord with many Germans wary of a faltering European Union and the million-plus refugees from Syria and Iraq who have been welcomed by Merkel’s government. The popularity of the AfD has caused considerable concern both within and outside of Germany, as it seems on track to be the first far-right party to gain seats in the German parliament since the end of World War II. 

Germany Decides: Counter demonstrator holding a sign reading "Berlin against Nazis" at anti-Merkel rally.
A counter demonstrator holds a sign reading "Berlin against Nazis" at an anti-Merkel rally on Sept. 9. The marchers, affiliated with the far-right, have criticized the German Chancellor's immigration policy throughout her current term. |  Omer Messinger/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In recent months, the AfD has launched a striking online ad campaign spearheaded by U.S.-based Harris Media, known for its work on the campaigns of Senator Ted Cruz and President Donald Trump. The ads, featuring slogans such as “Burkas? We like bikinis” and “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves,” have gained notoriety in Germany and abroad, where they have been viewed by some as Islamophobic or evoking Nazi pro-natalist policies. With the rise of right-wing populist governments in Poland and Hungary, coupled with the emergence of the “alt-right” in the United States, the success of the AfD will be closely watched from Los Angeles to Moscow.

An ad campaign launched by the AfD and created by a U.S.-based ad agency, features slogans such as “Burkas? We like bikinis” and “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves."

Whether Angela Merkel sails comfortably to victory or Martin Schulz beats the odds on Sept. 24, the new German Chancellor will no doubt be faced with a wide array of potentially intractable challenges, from negotiating Brexit, to a resurgent Russia, to an American government whose commitments to free trade and the EU are less than certain.

German citizens living or traveling overseas who are interested in voting in the September 24th election can determine eligibility and requirements at Germany’s official election website.