September 23, 2009 / 10:10 AM / 11 years ago

Q+A: German election may be decided by "overhang" seats

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany’s federal election on Sunday will likely be cliffhanger with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and their preferred partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), holding a narrow majority in voter surveys.

But even if her Christian Democrats (CDU), their Christian Social Union (CDU) sister party and the FDP fall short of a majority of the 598 regular parliamentary seats, they could still take power due to a quirk in the German election law.

Here are some questions and answers on how that is possible.

WHAT ARE “OVERHANG” SEATS?

Germany has a mixed member proportional voting system. Under this system voters cast two ballots — one directly for a candidate in his or her constituency and the second for a party. This second vote determines the distribution of seats in parliament.

However, if a party wins more direct seats in a given state than it would theoretically get according to the percentage of second votes, the Bundestag lower house creates extra “overhang” seats. There were 16 such “Ueberhangsmandate” in 2005, roughly evenly divided between the big parties.

WHY IS THAT IMPORTANT?

There could be a record number of “overhang” seats in 2009 because the two main parties, the CDU/CSU and SPD, should win virtually all of the direct seats in Germany’s 299 constituencies but end up with a smaller share of “second ballots” than ever before.

The CDU/CSU is expected to win most of the estimated 20 or so “overhang” seats. Those extra seats in parliament could help the CDU/CSU and FDP clinch a majority even if they fall short of a majority based strictly on “second ballots.”

IS THAT FAIR?

Not really, because it gives bigger parties an advantage. The Constitutional Court has ruled that the election law must be reformed by 2011 to eliminate this quirk. An attempt to change it before this vote was blocked by Merkel’s conservatives, who saw that they might benefit from the existing rules.

WHY WERE “OVERHANG SEATS” NOT A PROBLEM IN PAST ELECTIONS?

“Overhang” seats were rare in the past. In the 16 federal elections between 1949 and 2005, the CDU/CSU won a combined total of 38 extra seats while the SPD won 34.

When there were three or four parties in parliament, the CDU/CSU and the SPD used to come closer to winning 50 percent of the “second ballot” vote so there were fewer “overhang” seats. Now with five party blocs in parliament, CDU/CSU or SPD candidates still win almost all the constituencies but a smaller share of the “second ballot” votes that are cast.

Political scientists predict 2009 could be the first time a chancellor wins office by relying on such seats.

CAN THE Center-RIGHT LOSE THE VOTE BUT STILL WIN POWER?

Yes. Political scientists and pollsters have estimated that the CDU/CSU and FDP could end up as many as three percentage points behind the other parties represented in parliament yet still get a majority thanks to “overhang” seats.

ARE MAJORITIES BUILT UPON “OVERHANG” SEATS AS STABLE?

Not really. If a member of parliament with an “overhang” seat dies or has to give up his or her seat for any reason, the party loses that seat. If an MP with a regular seat dies, parties can reassign those seats to an alternate.

IS A GOVERNMENT BUILT UPON “OVERHANG” SEATS LEGITIMATE?

Legally yes, but there could be a cloud over any government that takes power solely on the basis of its “overhang” seats.

Smaller parties have already begun questioning the legitimacy of this and it could make the opposition less willing to forge legislative compromises and increase partisan conflicts.

Merkel signaled at a news conference last week that she would be ready to take power with “overhang” seats, saying: “An overhang seat is not a second-class seat.”

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