German votes are counted, but the results won't be known for a while

Posted by Matthew Schofield on October 1, 2013 

The hands of winner, Angela Merkel, on a billboard near the Bundestag.


Merkel's historic victory isn't a complete one

— The math of the German election was fascinating. Really.

Viewing the election as an American, the easy response to the recently held German vote is that Chancellor Angela Merkel won.

It’s not as simple as that, of course. Angela Merkel wasn’t actually running for the Chancellor’s seat. She was actually on the ballot for a seat representing a beautiful little vacation district on the Baltic Sea (or the Ostsee). In her district, Merkel got 57 percent of the vote.

But she is also the top candidate of her party, which is actually two parties, one in Bavaria and one in the rest of the country. Together they are simply called The Union, and she is the face (or the hands) of The Union. The Union collected 41.5 percent of the votes. That was the most of any single party in the German multi-party system.

In fact, the next highest vote tally went to the Social Democrats, who collected only 25.7 percent of the vote. And no other party got more than 9 percent.

Still, 41.5 percent is well shy of 50 percent, which we like to think of as the point at which a party can claim a majority. Except, it turns out, 41.5 percent isn’t that shy of a majority in this election.

German political parties need to attract 5 percent of the total vote to get into the Bundestag, the German Parliament. An aside: Germans each vote twice, once for a local candidate and once for their choice of political party when they head to the polls for a national election.

But lots of parties who enter candidates in the elections won’t reach that 5 percent barrier. For instance, the nationalist NPD (read neo-Nazi) never gets into parliament, but always collects about one percent of the vote. And this time there was the whacky Pirate Party, and the even whackier the spiritual party, who would have instituted an hour of yoga at the start of each school day. They each collected a few votes here and there.

But that means that while those who voted them count among the total of all voters, the votes these parties attracted aren’t reflected in the candidate totals.

In this election, there were a record number of also ran parties. The most notable was the Liberal Democrats Party (the FDP, in German). They’d been in Parliament since 1949, with a pro-business agenda but a fairly malleable personality otherwise. They were a popular partner for the center right Union and the center left SPD, and would have been the coalition partner of choice for the Union this time.

Except they only attracted 4.8 percent of the vote. And then there was the Alliance for Germany party, which proposed chucking the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and 

Spain) out of the euro. They were a popular protest vote about the handling of the euro crisis. But not that popular. They collected 4.7 percent of the vote.

Still, in all, the others collected 15.8 percent of the German vote. Meaning 15.8 percent of the vote accounted for zero members of parliament. The actual vote total for controlling parliament wasn’t half of 100 percent, but half of 100-15.8 percent, so control equaled 42.1 percent.

Merkel’s Union almost grabbed a majority by itself. It would have been the first time in decades that had happened. Konrad Adenauer was the last chancellor whose party attracted that kind of support. He left office two years after the Berlin Wall was built.

The Union grabbed 311 seats in the Bundestag. The other three parties totaled 319.

Now, there was outside of Germany chatter that the other three parties could form a coalition and rule, despite the fact that the Union was the most popular single (well, double) party. The SPD, after all, is center left, and the Green Party is considered lefty, and then the other part is actually called “the Left” so they would seem a match.

Except the SPD hates “the Left,” for being too left, for being commies. The Greens refuse to work with The Left, as well. As does the CDU. In any case, Germans all seem to understand there is no hope of such a coalition. But the three “losers” could vote together, regardless.

So the Union needs five seats to form a ruling coalition.

Getting those seats is where the next twist comes in. Because the Union was so close to a majority, the remaining possible partners realized that if they joined up, they would be not only junior partners, but very junior partners. For two basically left leaning parties, it’s tough to see the advantage to being a weak second to a center right ruling Merkel.

The SPD, after all, has been the dominant party in the not too distant past. And the Greens lost quite a few votes compared to 2009, which is blamed on their support of center right economic policy (well, and the dredging up of their 1980s flirtation with the support of pedophilia). Compromising more is a not seen as a good, long term, idea.

In fact, because the Union is so strong, the others appear to be much tougher negotiators than expected. The SPD is reportedly demanding six minister seats in the cabinet to form a "Grand Coalition." As dominant as they were in this election, the CDU would like to maintain more of those seats (last time, when they were substantially weaker, they gave their FDP partners five seats).

This will be worked out, though right now all parties seem to think a new coalition might make a nice Christmas season gift. And it’s almost impossible to imagine Merkel won’t remain in charge.

After all, as every article is obliged to point out, before being a politician, Merkel was a physicist. And physicists understand complicated math. 



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