Merkel Seen Romping to Victory, But Losing MPs

Excuse me, are these seats really taken? Source: DPA

Chancellor Angela Merkel is on course for victory in Germany’s September 24 election, but even if her Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, increases its share of the vote, it will almost certainly wind up with fewer spots in parliament.

Germany’s complex system of proportional representation makes it difficult to translate poll numbers into seat predictions. But a new projection by Election.de and Handelsblatt suggests that of a total of 663 parliamentary seats, 262 will go to the CDU and their Bavarian allies the Christian Social Union, with the center-left Social Democrats, or SPD, falling to 152.

Among the smaller parties, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany, or AfD, is seen racking up 67 seats, while the socialist Left Party should win 65, the pro-business Free Democrats, or FDP, will likely get 61, and the environmentalist Greens should take 56.

These numbers would mean victory for Ms. Merkel, either in a continuation of the current “grand coalition” with the SPD, or in a coalition with the FDP and the Greens. Other coalitions, although mathematically possible, are political non-starters.

While this year’s national campaign has failed to catch fire, many parliamentary candidates are fighting for their political lives.

Although this year’s national campaign has largely failed to catch fire, many parliamentary candidates are fighting for their political lives. The country is divided into 299 direct-member constituencies which use a first-past-the-post system, with voters picking their preferred candidate. But voters also have a second vote, for their preferred party. These second votes are used to allocate a further 299 seats from party candidate lists, in order for parliamentary representation to roughly reflect their nationwide support.

Ms. Merkel’s CDU and its CSU allies are running at around 40 percent in nationwide polls. As the largest party, it stands to win a very large number of “direct mandates” – the Election.de/Handelsblatt survey suggests as many as 251 seats. By comparison, just 23 SPD candidates are likely to win constituencies outright, along with four from the Left Party (all in the east of the country, where its popularity is highest), and just one from the Green party.

Paradoxically, a strong party showing could mean trouble for some leading CDU figures. Because the party is likely to win so many seats outright through its constituencies, it will get comparatively few seats through the party list. So top CDU politicians who do not win their seats directly might not be guaranteed a back door into parliament via the list. Ursula von der Leyen, the CDU defense minister, stands to become a high-profile casualty: If she fails to win her Hanover constituency outright, she will likely be booted out of parliament.

Even if their overall vote remains stable, the CDU and SPD could each lose 40 to 50 seats.

For the Social Democrats, the reverse is true. Many of their projected 23 direct seats will come in North Rhine-Westphalia, their traditional industrial heartland. In other federal states, most of their seats will come via the party list. Since leading party figures tend to figure at the top of the list, major SPD casualties are less likely.

Popular candidates often perform significantly better in their constituencies than their parties do. In 2013, Ms. Merkel won 56 percent of her constituency’s vote in the northern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, compared to the 42.5 percent her party won in the state. Likewise, a popular Green Party candidate, Hans-Christian Ströbele, won his Berlin constituency outright with 40 percent of the vote, although his party took just 12.5 percent citywide.

This year, the AfD and FDP seem likely to exceed the 5 percent threshold – the minimum level a party needs to have seats in parliament. The rule is meant to prevent a plethora of small parties and help ensure stable government. In 2017, the likely presence of two extra parties in parliament means further pressure on candidates for the larger parties. The 299 proportional, list-based seats now have to be divided up among six parties, not four as in the last parliament. For the CDU and SPD, this means that even if their overall vote remains stable, they each could lose 40 to 50 seats.

A final election rule could save leading candidates who do badly in their constituencies. If a party wins more direct-mandate seats than the overall number of seats it is proportionally entitled to, it gets to keep the extra seats, which are known as “overhang seats.” However, the other parties are given extra seats in compensation, to keep overall representation in line with the popular vote. This extra tranche of seats will be filled from party lists, offering yet another chance to party bigwigs who fail to win an individual majority. Overhang seats and compensatory seats are all added onto the official total of 598 seats, in effect making parliament larger.

“Our election law was simply not made for a six-party system.”

Matthias Moehl, head of Election.de

All of this makes for increasingly arcane calculations to work out how many seats each party will receive. Some observers question if the system can continue in its current form. Matthias Moehl, head of Election.de, told Handelsblatt: “Our election law was simply not made for a six-party system.” The last time six parties were elected to parliament was in 1953.

Until recently, overhang and compensatory seats were a rare phenomenon, rarely more than a dozen extra seats in any election. But recent rulings from Germany’s constitutional court makes them more likely to be a factor this time around. The Election.de and Handelsblatt survey suggests a total of 65 extra parliamentarians could be elected in this way, swelling the Bundestag by more than 10 percent.

Those extra seats will mean a big increase in parliamentary costs and bureaucracy. In the past, the German Taxpayers Federation, an association which pressures for lower public spending, has criticized overhang seats as a waste of money, and called for a fixed upper limit on the number of parliamentary deputies.

11 p6 Miles Ahead in the Polls-01

Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. Brian Hanrahan adapted this article for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: delhaes@handelsblatt.com

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