I love the German Electoral System. Here’s why you should too

5 mins read

By Carl Sjölin Fagerlind

I’ve always been fascinated by voting systems. That’s right, voting systems. I can spend hours researching more effective and fair voting methods on the internet, which I would then fervently advocate for, even in the most trivial of moments – from choosing a party’s theme to deciding which movie to watch. When my efforts fall on deaf ears, I sometimes refuse to vote, boycotting what I view as unfair. The thing is that a vote is often wasted in first past the post elections (where the highest vote count wins it all).

This obsession of mine has recently been directed to a particular electoral body – which has made many headlines: the German Bundestag (parliament). If you bear with me, I’ll explain why I consider it the best system of representation and why it should be implemented in all countries.

The current German system followed the formation of the Federal Republic after the Second World War. It’s a fine example of lessons learnt: rejecting both the authoritarianism of the Empire and the unbridled proportional representation of the Weimar Republic.

Here’s how it works

When Germans cast their votes, they express two choices. The first is for a candidate representing an electorate of roughly 250.000 people; this person will be elected in the same way as members of parliament (or MPs) in Britain or the USA: the candidate receiving the most preferences is awarded the seat in parliament – a so-called direct mandate.

Of the 598 Bundestag seats, half are elected this way. “What about the other half?” you may ask. Well, with their second vote, Germans choose a party; and just like in Sweden, seats equal each party’s share of votes, as long as they pass the 5% threshold. The remaining seats in parliament, not filled by direct mandates, are divided among parties: so that parliament’s new composition mirrors as closely as possible the country’s vote.

Armin Laschet, leader of the CDU: his centre-right party will join the opposition benches, after 16 years spent leading the Federal Cabinet.

If you didn’t get that the first time, don’t worry: it’s complicated and even lots of German voters don’t fully understand it. This system is called mixed-member proportional representation, or MMP, if you’re as nerdy as me. It’s used in one way or another in nine nations around the world, most famously Germany and New Zealand. So, if you’d like to learn more there’s plenty of material: Wikipedia has a very good article, otherwise CGP Grey has made an easy, yet in-depth explanation on YouTube.

This leads us to the most common argument against MMP: that it’s too complicated and would thus make voting harder. Though, I argue that that is not the case. The people of both Germany and New Zealand approve of the system and don’t find it too difficult. In practice, you just pick a person and a party you like: it’s as simple as that. To make sure no one is left behind in the hypothetical switch between electoral systems, an option could be to explain it to the population through public broadcasts, commercials and promotional material. This was done successfully in New Zealand after deciding to implement MMP in 1993. If it’s possible to switch from left- to right-handed traffic overnight (like Sweden in 1967), it’s definitely possible to teach people MMP. Such an effort would most likely be costly, but the great benefits for democracy make the switch to MMP worth it, which we’ll get to now.

Better representation for everyone

Countries like the USA and UK elect their representatives through first past the post (FPTP). Proponents of this system claim it leads to stable governments, since it usually ensures a two-party system without the incentive to compromise. Under MMP this would not be the case, as parties get an electoral share equal to their popularity. It usually means that big parties lose seats and small parties gain them; compromise and negotiations between parties become necessary for the governing coalition.

Given the US talks of increased partisanship and tougher rhetoric, wouldn’t a system that encourages parties to work together instead of stoking division be more stable in the long run? As for strength, a one-party government naturally achieves its aims until they lose the next election (and the other party does the same). And frankly, it’s a philosophical question whether absolute rule by the plurality is better than negotiated compromise.

Reichstag’s cupola, Berlin. German government coalitions are notoriously tough to form, yet recent history showed their adaptiveness and creativity.

Any reform to break the two-party system, dragging these democracies kicking and screaming into the nineteenth century, is unlikely, but definitely possible. New Zealand did it between 1993 and 1996, smoothly switching from British style FPTP to MMP, with surprisingly little friction as rivals suddenly needed to cooperate. It’s also more possible to successfully instate MMP in the US or UK than other proportional systems, since it would maintain continuity with local representation.

In a country like Sweden, which already uses a type of proportional system, it’s harder to see what difference MMP would make. To many, I imagine, it would only seem an unnecessary complication. If you think this, consider: who actually represents you? Quite likely you’ve no idea who you actually voted for in the last election. You voted for a party, and then that party cast your preference for a person: this takes politics away from people.

If you, or your local community, want to make your voices heard in parliament there’s no one to turn to. You could contact MPs from your area (if there are any) or of a party that might agree with you, but if your community’s interests are unimportant to the nation at large, how likely are you to be heard? For someone to bring up your concerns in parliament? Under MMP, each part of the country would be represented. Even if they might not belong to the party you would have preferred, there would still be someone whose job depends on keeping their home district happy. There’d be an actual person you can vote for, a politician who’s connected to you. We’re humans: it’s better to know who’s supposed to take care of our business, instead of hoping national parties won’t look past us.

Empowering minorities

This brings us to the issue of fair minority representation. In a country with proportional representation like Sweden, local minorities have a tough time getting their voices heard. If, say, all the Sami in Sweden were to decide to form their own party, they’d still only account for around 0,2-0,4% of the national electorate. Nowhere near clearing the 4% hurdle to enter parliament. There hasn’t even been a documented Sami member of the Riksdag in Sweden since the 1760s. But under MMP they have a chance of receiving a local representative.

This is the situation in New Zealand, where the Maori party has two seats in parliament. Despite not reaching the 5% threshold, they gained their seats by the system of direct mandates. Minorities like the Sami are sidelined by the system in many democracies all over the world: MMP would give them a far better shot at national representation.

On the left, Rawiri Waititi: co-leader of the Maori Party.

To conclude I’d like to leave you with this: Democracy is a country’s most valuable institution, but it comes in many forms. Frankly, some are plainly bad, leading to polarization, disillusionment, monopolies on power and a lack of the basic principle that all votes are equal in effect. The Germans, like with many things, do it better.

If all countries took after them, I genuinely believe that the democracies of the world would be better off and far more fairly ruled, kicking some much-needed life to the greatest system humanity has achieved.

Cover photo: “The German National Flag” by photoeverywhere is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Photo 1: “03 | Heinz-Kühn Stiftung – Foto mit Alumni | Peter Limbourg und Armin Laschet” by Deutsche Welle Unternehmen is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Photo 2: “20.02.15 | Cupola.” by Neil MacWilliams is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Photo 3: Katene Durie / Maori Party

Carl Sjölin Fagerlind works as a mailman in Uppsala. He spends most of his free time rewatching sitcoms, playing curling or studying an eclectic cocktail of languages, history, philosophy and politics. Going down Wikipedia rabbit holes on any trivial topic catching his interest has claimed many hours of his life.

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