The German political system may seem complicated at first glance, but there are plenty of parallels to other democracies such as the UK and the US. In this post we hope to provide clarity about political structures, elections, and an overview of each of the major parties in the country, as well as information about your voting rights as an expat.
German Political System
These elections take place every four to five years and are for electing mayors and other local representatives, and on any local issues.
The Federal States (Bundesländer)
Germany has 16 federal states, and they have local elections every five years. Through this representatives are sent to the Bundesrat in Berlin, to be the spokesperson for each area. These people, along with the federal representatives, are responsible for electing the President, and the judges that sit on the federal court.
The Federal Government (Bundesregierung)
The federal government is a parliamentary democracy, and there are three branches of power: the executive branch, the legislative branch and the Judiciary branch.
While the federal president and the president of the Bundestag are the country’s most senior representatives, the seat with the greatest political power is the federal chancellor.
The German people elect the Bundestag, which is made up of members of parliament. After the president Appoints the chancellor, that pick is then voted on by the Bundestag.
First vote/Second vote
In Germany, the federal ballot looks a little different than most places. On the left side of the card Germans are asked to vote for a member in their district to represent them in the Bundestag. They get another vote on the right side of the card for their preferred political party. Their two votes do not have to align. The second vote determines the ratio of each political party in Parliament.
Each party in every state comes up with a list of candidates, and depending on how well their party does in the vote, this determines how many of those candidates get actual seats, in addition to those who are directly elected.
Electoral Threshold, Distribution of Seats, and Coalitions
A party needs at least 5% of the vote to qualify. While all directly elected members sit in the Bundestag, there are also overhang and balance seats that are essentially “extra” seats, to make sure that the representation of the parties reflects the second vote.
Because there are a number of political parties, it is unlikely that a single party will hold over 50% of the seats. This is when parties form coalitions. They basically team up in order to pass legislation and elect a Chancellor.
Polling Card (Wahlbenachrichtigung) and Voting Process
After having registered at your local election office, you should receive a polling card in the mail within three weeks. If you do not receive this card it is advised that you call The office to make sure that you are in fact registered. As long as you are registered you are eligible to vote with a valid form of ID, even if you misplace this card.
Parties – Overview and Breakdown by the Distribution of Seats
The CDU is the most prominent political party in Germany. It’s sister party, the CSU, has nearly identical political goals, although it is a bit more conservative, runs in and has the interests of Bavaria in mind.
The Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union of Bavaria, respectively, fall to the center-right in terms of political alignment in the country.
The social democratic party of Germany is the closest to being truly moderate in the country. They are passionate about social justice and workers unions.
This is not only the most conservative party, they also heavily lean towards nationalism. They are critical of the European Union, have many extremist members, and target the vote of the middle class.
The FDP values neoliberalism, but are much closer to the center in terms of social alignment. They want a liberal market economy and simplicity within the taxing system.
The Left Party
The democratic socialists (not to be confused with the social Democrats) are not surprisingly a left-wing group. They are socially progressive and believe in collectivism.
Alliance 90/The Greens
This party is an ecological party, is active in the fight for civil rights, and is anti-military and anti-nuclear. They fall in the center left.
Expat Voting Rights
If you are from a country that is also a member of the European Union, have a residence permit, and you are over 18 years of age, you are most likely eligible to vote in Municipal elections! In order to vote you need to register at your local Wahlamt. Within three weeks you should have your aforementioned Wahlbenachrichtigung but even if you don’t you are still able to cast your ballot as long as you bring your passport or another valid form of identification.
Again if you are from a country within the EU you can vote in EU elections from Germany. You cannot however vote in both Germany and your home country.
German or Dual Citizenship
If you have German citizenship and you reside primarily in Germany, you can vote in all elections.