German election: Why this vote matters

A worker pastes up election campaign posters for the upcoming general elections of the CDU and SPD in BerlinImage copyright Reuters
Image caption Who will be the next chancellor? Angela Merkel or her main challenger, Martin Schulz

If the polls are right, Angela Merkel is heading for four more years at the top in Germany. But when Germans vote on 24 September, far more is at stake than one of the biggest jobs in Europe.

For the first time since World War Two, six parties are expected to enter the Bundestag, including a group of right-wing nationalists.

What’s so important?

This is the first national vote since the Merkel government opened Germany’s doors to an influx of migrants and refugees in 2015, letting in almost 900,000 people.

The conservative chancellor promised Germans they would manage, and they did. But politically her Christian Democrat (CDU) party took a hit, at least for a time. She is seeking a fourth term as chancellor.

Big changes are taking place in German politics. It is fragmenting, and there is a real chance that the anti-immigration, anti-Islam Alternative for Germany (AfD), which is not yet represented in parliament, could secure third place.

So far AfD is only represented on a regional level. Some of its candidates have expressed far-right statements.

The last parliament (above) had four parties represented – counting the CDU and its Bavarian CSU sister party as one. The next Bundestag could have an unprecedented six – out of a total of 34 parties taking part. Apart from the big two parties, four others are all polling upwards of 8%: the Greens, socialist Die Linke (The Left), AfD and the free-market liberal Free Democrats (FDP).

This election matters to the rest of Europe, too. Germany plays a dominant role in the European Union, partly because of the size of its economy. It also pays more than any other country into the EU budget.

Is the migrant crisis still a hot topic?

It’s right up there, along with anything related to it: immigration, asylum, integration and deportation of failed asylum seekers.

The German news website Focus complained that the topic dominated the one big TV-duel between Angela Merkel and her main rival – Martin Schulz of the SPD. “Is there really no other issue besides refugees?” it asked.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Martin Schulz tried and failed to persuade Angela Merkel to take part in a second TV debate

Yet Angela Merkel’s ratings are largely untouched by the migration debate. After initially opening the door to Syrian refugees, the government then took a tougher line, promising deportations after hundreds of mainly North African men had attacked women in Cologne as 2016 began.

There are other big themes too: social injustice, benefits and poverty are key, as are internal security and education. That is why Mr Schulz wants to focus on fair wages, better schools and secure pensions.

Perhaps surprisingly, German public spending on education was lower in 2014 than the EU average.

Brexit has been largely absent from the election campaign and did not figure in the TV duel at all.

Is Merkel a shoo-in?

Not yet, because whatever the polls say there are millions of undecided voters – as many as 46%, says Martin Schulz.

But with the SPD still around 14 points behind Mrs Merkel’s party in the polls, he is unlikely to attract all of them. He failed to register any major blows during their TV debate and his plea for a second duel has fallen on deaf ears. Part of his problem is that his party has been the junior partner in Mrs Merkel’s Grand Coalition for the past four years.

His only hope is a late surge in the polls.

One reason Mrs Merkel might feel secure is that Germany’s economy is doing very nicely, thank you. GDP is growing and the government receives more in tax than it spends.

Will there be change at the top?

Mr Schulz has already appeared to reject the idea of another CDU-led grand coalition, and there are alternatives.

For Mrs Merkel the choices are these:

  • A Black-Yellow coalition: with the black colours of the CDU and the yellow denoting a revived pro-business, liberal FDP. A black-yellow coalition governed Germany from 2009 before the FDP’s utter wipe-out in the 2013 election. This would require both parties to have big enough numbers in the Bundestag, but may be the most likely
  • Another “Black-Red” alliance, of CDU and SPD, which governed Germany from 2005-2009 and then again from 2013-17
  • A “Jamaica” coalition – because of the colours of Jamaica’s flag – with the CDU, FDP and Greens. Not a marriage made in heaven, but there is a prototype coalition working in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein.

If the SPD’s Martin Schulz has a chance:

  • He would likely need the support of two parties, perhaps the Greens and Die Linke, although there is bad blood between the SPD and Die Linke
  • The most colourful but unlikely alternative would be a traffic-light coalition made up of the SPD, FDP and Greens
  • His best hope would be in securing big policy concessions from the CDU, and in swallowing his party’s pride.

Faces to watch

Who are the new stars trying to challenge the big two parties?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Christian Lindner’s FDP hopes to return to government, despite four years spent outside the Bundestag

The FDP is back from the wilderness, led by Christian Lindner, a charismatic 38-year-old who has tried to focus on education and a “digital first” campaign. If the FDP returns to government, party colleague Alexander Graf Lambsdorff will also be eyeing a top job.

The other three parties have two joint leaders each.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sahra Wagenknecht of Die Linke and Cem Özdemir (R) of the Greens are two of the faces to watch

The left-leaning Green Party is led by centrists Katrin Göring-Eckardt and Cem Özdemir. He has called for Angela Merkel to be much tougher with Turkey, while she has held positions in the Protestant Church.

Die Linke is represented by Sahra Wagenknecht and Dietmar Bartsch, while the right-wing, nationalist AfD is led by Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland.

How right-wing is AfD?

Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has spoken of the prospect of having “real Nazis in the German Reichstag for the first time since the end of World War Two”. Is that just election rhetoric?

AfD’s programme is heavily anti-immigrant, and particularly anti-Islam. It calls for a ban on minarets and considers Islam incompatible with German culture. Several of its candidates have been linked to far-right remarks.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Alice Weidel (L) and Alexander Gauland (R) have both been caught up in controversy
  • A 2013 email from lead candidate Alice Weidel was unearthed during the campaign in which she made derogatory remarks about Arabs, Roma and Sinti. Ms Weidel rejected the report as “fake news”
  • Joint leader Alexander Gauland has suggested that integration commissioner Aydan Özoguz should be “dumped” back to her parents’ country of origin, Turkey. Last year he said he would not want a black German footballer as a neighbour.
  • Another candidate, Frauke Petry, suggested in 2016 that migrants should be shot at “if necessary”, to stop them entering Germany illegally.
  • German right-wingers pick election team
  • German right-winger faces perjury fight

Who gets to vote for whom?

Germans over 18 vote in elections to the Bundestag every four years, in a mixed system of first-past-the-post and proportional representation.

An estimated 61.5 million people have two votes. The first is a direct vote for candidates in 299 constituencies, the second is for a party list in each of Germany’s 16 states. To get into parliament a party needs either 5% of the vote or three seats from the first list.

There are another 299 seats on the second list, but extra seats are also created so that the size of a party in the Bundestag is in line with its share of the second vote. In the previous Bundestag there were 630 seats.

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A total of 4,828 candidates are fighting the election, 29% of them women. Only the Greens and Die Linke have selected half their candidates as women. The oldest candidate is 89 and the youngest 18.

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