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Will Germany tamper with election law before vote?

July 1, 2009

Should Germany change its election law just a few months before September’s parliamentary vote? That’s the question that has been weighing on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s right-left coalition.

But fears that Germany might end up “smelling like a banana republic”, as Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper columnist Kurt Kister wrote, or be mentioned in the same breath as Iran if it ends up tampering with the law so close to the Sept. 27 ballot has helped kill the intriguing idea for the time being. There is also a tacit angst running through Merkel’s conservative CDU and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, that they could end up throwing away a possible victory once again (a 21-point lead melted to 1-point win in 2005) for their preferred centre-right coalition with the Free Democrats by changing the law now.

It’s a quirk of the German mixed member proportional two-vote system that has caused a mess with so-called “Ueberhangmandate” (“overhang seats”). Each voter can cast one ballot for a specific candidate in one of the 299 constituencies and a second ballot for a particular party. The second vote gives the percentage of seats each party wins. But if a party wins more direct seats in the constituency via the first ballot than it should have based on the percentage of second votes, new “Ueberhangmandate” are created. The CDU/CSU and SPD are the primary beneficiaries.

Der Spiegel news magazine cited research from political scientists showing that the CDU and CSU could pick up a record 24 “overhang seats” while the SPD is projected to pick up at most 3 additional seats. That would raise the odds of the CDU/CSU being able to form a centre-right coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats and end their loveless marriage with the SPD in the grand coalition. The CDU/CSU currently enjoys a 11-point lead in opinion polls but their lead is expected to narrow by September — as it did in 2005.

The touchy issue of the “overhang seats” will flair up briefly in parliament on Friday, one of the final sessions before the election, when opposition parties put what is likely to be their doomed motion to change the law up for a vote.

The small parties feel justifiably disadvantaged by the law and the Constitutional Court agreed. Germany’s highest court in 2008 ordered changes to the election law to eliminate that built-in advantage that has often given a few extra seats in parliament at each election to the two larger parties, Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the SPD. “Overhang seats” helped cement Merkel’s position in the 2005 election and before that it helped the SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s ruling SPD-Greens coalition get a bit more breathing room in 1998 and 2002 with a slightly more comfortable majority. Before that CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl was the beneficiary of “overhang seats”.

The only catch was that the Constitutional Court in 2008 gave the government three years, until 2011, to make the changes. The CDU/CSU and the SPD were understandably in no rush to change the law that had helped them in past elections. The SPD, as it slowly dawned on them that they might be the big loser in the overhang seats sweepstakes this time, briefly entertained the notion of backing the measure by the Greens and Left party. But that would have immediately brought down the grand coalition and left the SPD out of power and left Merkel running a minority government in a caretaker role until September, according to
Bild columnist Hugo Mueller-Vogg.

And the SPD bolting to back a measure with the Greens and Left party would have immediately prompted a national debate about whether the SPD would be, despite claims to the contrary, preparing the way for a federal alliance with the Left party after the election.

So should Germany quickly change its election law before September and risk looking like a “banana republic” or carry on with a system that puts the smaller parties at a distinct disadvantage?

PHOTO: German Chancellor Angela Merkel casts her vote at the Federal Assembly in the Reichstag building in Berlin, May 23, 2009 that re-elected Horst Koehler president. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

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