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Overhang mandates and Merkel's majority

by DoDo Sat Jun 9th, 2007 at 06:11:33 AM EST

A speciality of the German election system could lead to a change of weights within the ruling German 'Grand Coalition'. Let me explain the arithmetic, and then I'll quote some recent polls.

From the diaries - afew Macro

Overhang mandates

Germany's election system is a mixed first-past-the-post/proportional one, with the latter dominating. Everyone has two votes: one for an individual candidate in the local election district, and another for a party list in the Land (state) the district is in.

Simplifying the process a bit, every state has about twice as many seats to distribute as it has individual election districts, so once the winners of the latter are known, the rest of the vacant seats are filled up from the party lists, so that the overall ratios are according to the second votes.

To give you an example: say a state has 8 districts. The Black Party wins five, the Red Party three seats directly. But meanwhile, party list votes are Black Party 42%, Red Party 36%, Green Party 18%, other 4%. That means Black is entitled to 7 seats, so two more can come from the party list; Red is entitled to 6 seats, so three more can come from the list, and Green gets 3 seats, all from the list.

However, it may happen that a party wins more seats directly than what proportional vote would entitle it to. In that case, all other parties still get their fair share according to the original calculation, so the lucky party has more seats than would be proportional, and the entire parliament increases from its minimum size by these overhang mandates.

In the above example, this would be the case if the Black Party would win all 8 direct mandates while the party list vote would stay the same: it would be entitled proportionally to 7 seats but would have one more, while no one would follow from the list; while the Reds and Greens would get all six resp. three seats filled from their lists.

Merkel's melting majority

In the 2005 elections, the Christian Democrats (CDU), which ran party lists and candidates in 15 of the 16 Länder, together with their permanent partners, the Christian Socialists (CSU, which runs in Bavaria) won 35.17% of valid party list votes. Their partners in the resulting 'Grand Coalition', the Social Democrats (SPD) won 34.25%.

Proportionally, this would have resulted in 219 vs. 213 seats. However, while CDU+CSU won only 7, the SPD won 9 overhang mandates, so the former's advantage in seats was narrower: 226:222. Still, a majority is a majority, so the CDU's Angela Merkel became chancellor (head of government).

Then, there was a scandal over the far-right remarks of a representative from CDU stronghold Saxony, who then left the party (this was diaried here). This man was the winner of a direct mandate, and the CDU had three overhang mandates from Saxony, so CDU couldn't 'replace' him from the party list -- thus Merkel's majority reduced to 225:222.

Now, on 26 March this year, influential economic liberal CDU member Matthias Wissmann (he used to be R&D and transport minister under Helmut Kohl, and is a member of the infamous old boy network Andenpakt, see here) was elected head of the German Automobile Industry Association (Verband der Automobilindustrie, VdA). His predecessor was pressured to resign for failure in lobbying Merkel to (further) reduce planned future environmental/climate change requirements... Pre-empting accusations of interest conflict (scandals recently plagued the CDU), in the end he announced that he'll step down as representative once he takes office as VdA head, which happened on 1 June.

However, Wissmann was directly elected in another CDU stronghold, Baden-Württemberg (see a story here): so another overhang mandate lost, so it's 224:222.

End of next week, on 17 June, the city of Mannheim will elect a new major. The CDU candidate is poised to win. He happens to be another Baden-Württemberg direct mandate holder in parliament, and will step down: so one more overhang gone, it will likely be 223:222.

A further reduction is not unlikely. As analysed by Walrecht.de, what we should focus on is not the relative number of overhang mandates, but the pool for overhang mandate losses: e.g., all direct mandate wins in states from where parties got overhang mandates. And there, the SPD has an advantage: it collected more overhang mandates in smaller states.

After a CDU victory in Mannheim, the situation would be:

  • SPD: 30 direct mandates from four Länder of which 9 are overhang mandates
  • CDU: 44 direct mandates from two Länder of which 4 are overhang mandates

...thus, the CDU is still more likely to lose more.

Recent polls

Wolfgang Munchau can fear further. The effect of the Left swing in Bremen is still visible in the last polls, the three left-wing parties would have a majority, and the one trend that seems visible in all pollsters' polls is some strengthening of the hard-left Left Party and some weakening of the (presently neo)liberal FDP.

Institute Allensbach EmnidForsaForsch'gr.
Date published 16.05
CDU/CSU 36.4 % 34 % 36 % 39 % 36 % 37 %
SPD 29.7 % 29 % 27 % 31 % 29 % 31 %
GRÜNE (Greens) 8.6 % 11 % 11 % 8 % 10 % 11 %
FDP 12.5 % 10 % 9 % 8 % 10 % 9 %
Die Linke. PDS (Left) 9.3 % 12 % 12 % 9 % 11 % 9 %
Other 3.5 % 4 % 5 % 5 % 4 % 3 %

Interesting development, but Wahlrecht.de also makes clear that there are few likely consequences for the coalition. I think that as long as the CDU/CSU has the overwhelming majority in the Bundesrat, Merkel will be secure.
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Fri Jun 8th, 2007 at 07:02:09 AM EST
Correct. And should the SPD ever consider a toppling of Merkel, it would also have to consider the possibility of new elections as a consequence, and since a coalition with the Left Party is highly unlikely at the moment while the SPD itself doesn't poll well, nothing good would come out of it for them.

I posted this diary more out of theoretical interest, and so that I can weave in some recent happenings...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Jun 8th, 2007 at 11:49:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
After getting into the Bremen parliament, what needs to happen for the Linke to stop being pariahs?

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jun 8th, 2007 at 12:13:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Judging from PDS-SPD coalitions in East Germany: to sell out?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Jun 8th, 2007 at 06:26:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Considering that there is a Grand Coalition, what would happen should SPD get bigger then CDU/CSU?

SPD chancellor and still Grand Coalition?

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Fri Jun 8th, 2007 at 08:23:00 AM EST
Nope. The Chancellor, as Wahlrecht.de explains, can only be brought down by a vote of no confidence in the Bundestag.
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Fri Jun 8th, 2007 at 10:54:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think the only practical thing that would happen is an SPD playing a stronger hand in coalition disputes. But that could be something with strong expression out in the public.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Jun 8th, 2007 at 06:28:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Some ideas to mitigate the peculiarity of the electoral system, highlighted by this diary.

  1. Increase the percentage of list seats.

  2. Apportion list seats at the national level.

  3. Fix the total size of the legislature (which will consequently be a bit less proportional than if overhang seats are allowed).

Presumably practical politicians in Germany are not much bothered about the problem.
by Gary J on Fri Jun 8th, 2007 at 12:36:56 PM EST
So far, overhang mandates in the minimum 400 (1949) to 656 (1990, 1994, 1998) seat Bundestag have been rare, though more common lately:

  1. 16
  2. 5(+2)
  3. 13
  4. 16
  5. 6
  6. 0
  7. 2
  8. 1
1976, 1972, 1969, 1965: 0
  1. 5
  2. 3
  3. 2
  4. 2

Obviously, overhang mandates are likely when even the largest party is well below 50%, that is, when there are numerous parliamentary parties. With the PDS in East Germany, overhang mandates became much more likely (and as you can see, when they failed on the 5% in 2002, overhangs were temporarily reduced).

Overhang mandate melting would count as real problem only when the government majority is hair-thin.

I note that in the diary I simplified the system. In truth even the seats apportitioned for the individual states ars not fixed: there is a compensation system between the states, primarily with the aim to shuffle fraction votes. This can reduce overhangs. (And then there is the 5% limit, and rules for parties under 5% with direct mandates, and the fraction rounding that reduces the minimum number of seats...)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Jun 8th, 2007 at 07:05:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What happens if a party wins a landslide in the direct election and does very poorly in the proportional one? This could boost the number of mandates.

Do they build a new parliament?

Otherwise many thanks for describing the german vote system.

Looks pretty reasonable to me, it allows local out of party candidates to be elected, gives proportional representation to country-wide small parties and fair share for "big" parties.

Are there any cases where the election results were considered "unfair"?

by Laurent GUERBY on Fri Jun 8th, 2007 at 02:29:25 PM EST
Well, direct elections landslide with very poor proportional showing is rather unlikely, aint' it? However, some strange things did happen with the Left Party's East German predecessor PDS. In 2002, they got only 4% nationally, but won two direct mandates, which were thus kind-of-overhangs. But this distortion can't get too big, and again the PDS is the practical example. In 1994, they failed the 5% hurdle, but still got proportional mandates, as with winning four direct mandates, they cleared the alternative, so-called "basis-mandate" hurdle: winning three or more direct mandates.

The parliament is in the renovated Reichstag building, i.e. where the Bismarck era (and later Weimar era) parliament was seated. It has enough room for extra seats; especially since the theoretical minimum number of winnable seats was reduced from 656 to 598 (from the 2002 elections).

Regarding elections considered unfair: I don't recall a grave case, but there have always been murmurings over even small distortions. One thing I remember clearly was election night in 2002, when the result was narrow and it turned around during the night, and IIRC around midnight, there was a phase when it seemed the CDU/CSU got more votes but less mandates than the SPD due to the overhangs. (But in the end, SPD was ahead by a legendary 6.027 votes, and while SPD was ahead by 3 overhangs, the 8-seat difference of the potential coalition partners made the difference.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Jun 8th, 2007 at 07:28:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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