Could proportional representation stop the popular Merkel?

One might think that the BBC would know the difference between the institutions of proportional representation (PR) and a parliamentary executive format. But one might be wrong.

On the Business Daily show on BBC World Service today, the host framed a program segment about Germany’s upcoming election around the following claim: Chancellor Angela Merkel (Christian Democrat) is vastly more popular than her main challenger, Peer Steinbrück of the Social Democrats. However, because of the electoral system she might not return as Chancellor.

For the record, if the most popular politician in the election does not emerge as head of the government after the election, it is because of the parliamentary system: Germany does not elect its leader directly. Its leader must have the consent of parliament (first chamber) to enter and remain in office. Just like Britain, one might note.

Later in the program, during an interview with two German election analysts, the host repeated a variant of this great threat to the popular Merkel emanating from the country’s electoral system, calling the system “unpredictable”.

If we redefined “electoral system” to mean “voters’ choices”, the host’s remark might have made some sense. He noted that many voters see less and less difference between the two big parties and are increasingly likely to vote for small parties, like the Greens. Indeed, even the popular Merkel is not going to lead her party to much more than 40% of the vote, assuming polls (which have been quite stable throughout the year) are accurate.

With only around 40% of the vote, the PR system will mean the Christian Democrats are short of a majority of seats–well short. The parliamentary system will mean she needs at least one partner. (One might point out to the BBC host: just like Britain; a minority government would also be possible but much less likely in Germany.) However, we can be fairly certain that the coalition will reflect how people actually voted. This is the value of PR. In fact, the highly predictable aspect of it. If 40% of voters have voted for Merkel’s party, and there is no conceivable alternative block of parties that has obtained a collective majority of votes, the government will be led by Merkel, in coalition with one of various smaller parties.

Despite the host’s best efforts to signal a looming crisis due to the German electoral system, both German guests calmly pointed out that Merkel was sure to return as Chancellor, most likely in the same coalition she has now–with the Free Democrats–or perhaps in coalition with Steinbrück’s Social Democrats. One of the guests said that the chance of the latter was increasing.

There actually is a good chance that the Christian and Free Democrats will be short of 50%. But that will be even less a crisis than when the same happened in 2005 (and that was not a crisis). In fact, given the new shape of German politics, with one party clearly dominant, it is time to stop calling the possible coalition of Christian and Social Democrats a “grand coalition”. But that is a theme for another planting.

19 thoughts on “Could proportional representation stop the popular Merkel?

  1. To be fair, with those voting proportions, CDU/CSU would have a good chance of getting a majority on its own under FPTP.

  2. The CDU actually did win a majority of the single member districts in 2009 and the CDU/CSU coalition won a majority of those seats in 2005. I would be surprised if they (or the CDU alone) didn’t take a majority of the direct mandates alone this year.

    Isn’t democracy so annoying when it allows the will of the people to subvert the party that wins the most districts?

  3. If I understand the electoral system correctly, and I probably don’t, a vote percentage in the 40s can only translate into an absolute majority if more than 10% of votes go to parties that do not get any seats. I am not sure that will happen.

      • Ah, the virtual orchard, where no planting ever dies!

        This is an interesting question: what is the lowest vote percentage under Germany’s electoral system that could result in a manufactured majority? I suppose this number has risen somewhat with the reforms of the system.

  4. If the advantage ratio for the CDU/CSU were to be as high this year as it was in 2009, a majority of seats could be won with just over 45% of the vote. However, it is unlikely that (1) this advantage could be repeated, given changes to the electoral system, or that (2) the CDU/CSU would obtain this high a list-vote percentage.

    Note that my (rough) calculation is made based on a single party (counting the CDU/CSU as such), and does not imply that the combination of CDU/CSU and FDP could win a majority on 45% of the votes. I think they would need to be higher than that, even if the electoral system had not been changed in a way that should make it more proportional, hence lowering the maximum feasible advantage ratio.

    (Advantage ratio = a party’s seat percentage divided by its vote percentage)

  5. MSS, one thing that needs to be taken into account is the increased list vote for non-parliamentary parties. In 2009, this was 6% of the total list vote. The most recent polls I can find project that this will increase to 8-11%. The FDP are still perilously close to 5%, and if they fall below the threshold, that would mean a non-parliamentary vote as high as 15%, and that a vote of 42-43% could capture a majority of seats.

    The four polls listed on the Wikipedia page conducted between 28 August and 1 September all show the CDU/CSU and FDP collecting 45-47% of the vote between them, and that this would be 50-52% of the vote for parliamentary parties. Whether Frau Merkel would be willing to form government with such a narrow majority, or whether she would look to form a “grand” coalition with around 70% of the seats in the Bundestag is anyone’s guess.

  6. Are there any conventions or even rules in Germany that would make a narrow majority of like minded parties a less ideal solution than a coalition between the two major, opposing parties?

  7. “The CDU actually did win a majority of the single member districts in 2009 and the CDU/CSU coalition won a majority of those seats in 2005.”

    This may have been meant sarcastically, but I’m pretty sure it is incorrect for 2005. I counted the mandates in 2005, and the CDU/ CSU tied in the number of districts they won, with the the PDS winning a few district, and one district electing a Green representative, though it went for the SPD in the party vote. And the tie held regardless of whether you counted the representatives actually elected, or the districts won by the party vote.

    So if the same exact voting patterns held and the 2005 election was conducted under single member plurality, in fact the overall result would have been exactly the same, a CDU/ CSU – SPD coalition. Of course, an election fought under different rules would have produced different results, but there would have been a higher likeliehood of more non-CDU and non-SPD MBs, as the FDP changed its strategy to try to win a few districts, either in electoral alliance with or in opposition to the CDU.

  8. If that is the case, I stand corrected. I admit to taking things the lazy way and just skimming the election results on the relevant wikipedia pages.

    Now that I reread wikipedia, it seems that if I was wrong, it was because they were wrong. It has the CDU/CSU winning 150 seats (106 and 44), a majority of 299. Of course, if the country operated with a pure FPTP system things may have played out differently

  9. The 106+44 result for 2005 is correct according to Manuel’s electionresources site. The CDU-CSU won 150/299, largely because the CSU won 44 of the 45 seats in Bavaria. Of course, had it been an FPTP election, it’s quite likely that the Greens and Left would have had a lot fewer votes and the SPD would have won quite a few more mandates.

  10. Ah good to see I was write. (Though I am still wrong for relying on wikipedia). While you are correct, as I implied, that the figures would have been different without the list seats, I am not sure why winning 44 out of 45 Bavarian seats needs to be pointed as odd. (If I read that correctly, I apologize if I do not). Bavaria has always seemed to me to the perfect example of why FPTP is a bad idea: it is a fully functioning, mature, non-gerrymandered democracy, where the dominant party is going to win all the time. That’s not news, its just a fact of life and no more odd than the GOP winning every district in, say, Alabama. (Not that I am in any way equating Alabama and Bavaria nor the GOP and the CSU)

  11. I wasn’t saying the result was odd, I was saying that was the reason the FPTP seats were so disproportional. The CDU won 41.7% of the non-Bavarian seats on 38.4% of the non-Bavarian Erststimme in 2005. Of course, Bavaria also would have evened out the SPD’s dominance in the seats in the rest of Germany, where they won 56.7% of the FPTP seats on just 40.3% of the non-Bavarian Erststimme.

  12. I wrote two comments re the 2005 election that were destroyed by a bad internet connection, so I apologize if this one is laconic.

    Keep in mind that German voters have two votes. One is for the person who represents their district. One helps determine how many members of the Bundestag is allocated to each party overall.

    Every election, you have a few people elected to the Bundestag from districts where some other party “won” via a plurality or a majority of the party allocation votes. Wikipedia seems to be counting the party membership of the candidates elected from the single member districts. The number of districts “won” by each party when you look at the second vote is slightly different, and though I did a hand tally in 2005 and could well be wrong, I think by that method the CDU-CSU fell one or two districts short of a majority.

  13. We were counting how many of the 299 constituency seats were won by the CDU-CSU; other parties may have won pluralities in the second vote, but that has no impact on who wins each constituency’s single member seat.

  14. Pingback: Why we should stop calling the possible next government of Germany a “grand coalition” | Fruits and Votes

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