2021 German federal election: key facts

The German federal election is taking place on 26 September, as is the case every four years. However, many aspects are not the same as always this time.

2021 is the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Following 16 years as leader of the German government, Angela Merkel is not running for another term as federal chancellor. 2021 also appears to be a year of ceaseless crises and catastrophes: the first part of the year was shaped by the coronavirus, and a mild and rainy summer escalated in the form of a flood disaster on a scale that had previously been unimaginable in Germany. The long announced withdrawal of Nato Troops along with the German Bundeswehr from Afghanistan culminated in an evacuation mission carried out under rather chaotic circumstances. Many Afghans with links to Germany are left behind in fear and uncertainty about their future. The issues discussed prior to the election are manifold.

What is important to the German people?

It goes without saying that social and political debate in Germany is characterised by the COVID-19 pandemic, also in times of election campaigns. The German bio-technology company BioNTech and its US partner Pfizer developed a vaccine within an impressively short time. Vaccinations continue to be a big issue in Germany, nevertheless. While more than 60 per cent of the population had been fully vaccinated by early September, almost one in five people over the age of 12 have neither recovered from the illness, nor received at least one dose of a vaccine. Opinions differ on how this should be handled. This includes the question whether only those who have been vaccinated or have recovered should be allowed to visit restaurants, concerts or the cinema, or also those who have not been vaccinated (and have taken a test).

The second key issue of 2021 is the climate crisis. Following three very hot and dry years, the summer of 2021 has been mild and wet. The Rhineland and Eifel regions in particular experienced extreme rainfall in mid-July. Rivers and streams turned into mighty torrents, causing huge destruction in narrow river valleys. More than 180 people died. The damage caused to buildings and infrastructure is massive. Scientists assume that the increase of temperatures due to climate change is in part responsible for this catastrophe.

The issue of migration and refugees is another subject of debate in the summer of 2021, and is fuelled by the situation in Afghanistan, where the radical Islamic group Taliban regained control, following the withdrawal of international troops. Many Afghans fear for their lives and their freedom and are trying to flee.

Education, the pension fund and digitisation are further topical issues that play an important role in this year’s election campaigns.

How does the election work?

Germany is a parliamentary representative democracy. Germans aged 18 and up are entitled to vote in a free and secret election.

In the election on 26 September, more than 6,200 candidates are competing for the seats of the German parliament called Bundestag. Voting takes place in the form of mixed-member proportional representation. This means that each voter casts two votes. The first vote determines which politician from the respective voting district will enter the Bundestag as its direct mandate. The second vote is cast for a party’s national list of candidates. This vote determines the majority situation in the Bundestag after the election, and who will be able to put the federal chancellor up for election.

How many members does the Bundestag have?

The regular number of seats in the Bundestag is 598. However, the actual number may be higher. The current Bundestag, for example, comprises 709 representatives. This deviation is due to the fact that direct mandates are balanced against the allocation of seats via the national lists. If the number of direct mandates obtained by a party is greater than the number of seats it would be entitled to based on its share of votes (so-called overhang seats), the other parties are awarded adjustment seats to compensate for this discrepancy. The percentage relationship between the parties is therefore maintained.

How many parties are taking part in the election?

47 parties are taking part in the 2021 election. To actually send any representatives to the Bundestag, these parties must obtain at least five per cent of validly cast second votes (electoral threshold) or their direct candidates must win their voting district.

Postal voting

Another special aspect of this election in the year of the coronavirus is that a large number of people is expected to not place their votes in the ballot box on Sunday, but to vote by mail. To do so, those eligible to vote need to apply for their voter notification card and the postal voting documents before the day of the election. All letters must arrive by Sunday evening. More than one in four voters opted for postal voting even for the last federal election. A record number of postal voters is expected for 2021.

Postal voting is also a good option for Germans who are living abroad temporarily. However, German expatriates who are not registered in Germany must apply in writing prior to the election to be included in the electoral register of their respective district. 

Who is going to win?

We will not find out who is the winner of the election before the night of 26 September. It is virtually certain that none of the parties will obtain an absolute majority of votes. Election polls conducted by various research institutes found that at around 25 per cent, the social democrats were ahead of the Christian democrats with just under 21 per cent, at the start of September. Bündnis 90/Die Grünen followed in third place with around 17 per cent. Further parties who stand good chances to send representatives to the German Bundestag are the liberal democrats FDP, the right-wing populist party AfD and the left-oriented Die Linke.

Most observers expect that the next government will be a coalition of three parties, whose representatives will account for the majority of seats in the parliament. These will also elect the federal chancellor. Three parties have named candidates for this role: the social democrats have nominated the current finance minister Olaf Scholz, the Christian democrat candidate is Armin Laschet, the first minister of Germany’s most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia, and the Greens have nominated their national party leader Annalena Baerbock.

Author: Sabine Giehle

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September 2021

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