Skip to main content

For Germany, a Lack of Democratic Competition Could Mean Lower Voter Participation

Even though the campaign for chancellor Merkel's re-election is essentially a foregone conclusion, there's still a great deal at stake on Sunday.
Angela Merkel.

Angela Merkel.

Let's face it: The outcome of this year's German federal elections seems like a foregone conclusion. With the latest public opinion polls showing that the center-right Christian Democratic Union party remains firmly in the lead of Germany's election race, Angela Merkel is on the verge of taking her fourth term as chancellor. And given that the September 24th elections are just days away, the 14 percentage point gap between the CDU and its closest rival, the Social Democratic Party, is as good as insurmountable—promising little drama à la the unpredicted votes that propelled Donald Trump to the United States presidency or that put Britain on a course toward Brexit.

Moreover, uncompetitive elections tend to reduce voter turnout, and the rationale—at least at the individual level—is clear: Why spend time researching and picking a candidate, finding the local polling station, and casting a vote when that one single vote won't have any impact? The uninspiring staidness of this year's electoral cycle has many Germans asking themselves this question. And even though German elections are held on Sundays, which means that Germans don't need to plan their vote around their workday as Americans do, there are still plenty of weekend activities more enjoyable and exciting than voting.

Why, then, should Germans bother to vote?

Even setting aside the normative arguments in favor of voting, there are eminently practical reasons for eligible Germans to cast a ballot on Sunday. Understanding why this is the case requires a bit of insight into the peculiarities of the German voting system, in which each voter casts two votes. With the first vote, or Erststimme, voters select the individual candidate who will serve as their district representative. This functions in essentially the same way that elections do in the U.S.; whoever wins the most votes wins the district seat.

Voters then cast their second vote, the Zweitstimme, for their preferred political party. These Zweitstimme votes are aggregated nationally and used to determine the number of seats that each political party will receive in the German parliament, the Bundestag. For instance, if, as currently projected, the CDU wins 36 percent of the Zweitstimme votes, it will receive 36 percent of the seats in the Bundestag. Some of these seats will be filled by members of the CDU who were directly elected at the district level, and the rest of these seats will be filled by party members who didn't win their district but who are on the CDU's electoral list.

So although the race for chancellor isn't competitive, that lack of competition isn't mirrored in every district-level race. Based on the estimates from, 77 out of Germany's 299 electoral constituencies are trending toward a particular candidate, but the race is too close to call. Another 80 districts have a likely winner, but, as anyone who's paid attention to British and American politics over the last year knows, likely winners are hardly certain winners. What this means is that, with less than half of the seats at stake in the direct elections being in safe districts this year, the majority of German voters could, in fact, make a difference in their local election.

Yet there's another reason for Germans to show up on election day: All German voters make a difference in the national election. Because of the Zweitstimme, even those voters who live in uncompetitive districts help to determine the party make-up of the German parliament—something that ought to matter to anyone who cares about bolstering liberal democracy.

To see why, look no further than the far-right, anti-immigrant, Euroskeptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Polls show that the party is on the rise, which is due solely to the expected outcome of the Zweitstimme. More than that, not a single AfD candidate is projected to win a seat via direct mandate. However, with 9 to 12 percent of the overall Zweitstimme vote expected to go to the AfD, Germans are suddenly faced with a world in which the AfD could very well become the third-strongest party in Parliament and, depending on how government coalition negotiations go, the head of the German opposition—a scenario that could have dangerous consequences.

If the AfD were the head of the opposition, it would, by tradition, acquire key committee chairmanships that shape German policy. More worrying still, simply by entering into the Bundestag—which would make it the first far-right party to sit in the German parliament since the end of World War II—the AfD would gain prestigefederal funds, the means to hire parliamentary staffers, and substantial intangible benefits, such as national legitimacy and a perennially visible platform for its anti-democratic views. This potential surge in far-right influence runs counter to the empirical data on extremist views in Germany, which shows that German public opinion hasn't actually swung rightward. In 2016, 9 percent of Germans were found to have extreme right-wing views, which is a slight drop from 10 percent in 2008.

Here's an important question, then: How has the AfD become so successful?

There are multiple factors that might explain this, of course, but the AfD's main advantage over Germany's other anti-democratic parties (such as the ultranationalist National Democratic Party and the conservative Republikaner, both of which have existed for years), is that the AfD is socially acceptable enough to be electable. This thin veneer of respectability has allowed individuals with extremist views to consolidate behind the AfD, which, in turn, casts radical views as the legitimate worries of concerned citizens.

Still, the majority of Germans are actually opposed to the AfD and what it stands for. This means that, with Germany's established parties at a loss as to how to handle the AfD and the election only days away, the onus largely is on the silent majority of German voters to turn out and stem the xenophobic tide. The presence of democratically minded Germans will be critical at the polls on Sunday, particularly in light of the fact that scholars suspect that AfD voters have underreported themselves in public opinion polls.

The rational option for anti-AfD Germans should be clear: Go vote. Even though the campaign for chancellor is essentially a foregone conclusion, there's still a great deal at stake on Sunday—and every single Zweitstimme cast has the potential to radically reduce, or ramp up, the national influence of a party bent on rallying people around a dangerous cause.

This story originally appeared in New America's digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.