The 2013 German federal election produced some surprises
by Philipp Harfst
The Bundestag election in September 2013 produced both stability and astonishing change in the German party system. While neither the relative vote shares of the two major parties nor the east-west divide in the party system have seen any alteration, the 2013 election still witnessed historic change: the plummeting of the Free Democrats (Freie Demokratische Partei, FDP) and the amazing rise of a new formation, the eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD). The AfD is a unique mix, combining pro-market economic orthodoxy, traditional values and opposition to immigration with an academic style of argumentation.
The upsurge of the AfD and fall of the FDP can be understood as an interplay of changes in the German electoral system with the more usual factors of political program and strategy. The election results raised the question of whether the venerable FDP could really disappear, allowing the AfD to establish itself as a right-wing populist outlier in the German party system.
The German electoral system and its recent changes
The Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament, is elected through a mixed-member proportional system with a nationwide 5 per cent threshold. Voters cast two votes, one for a candidate in a single-member district and a second for a closed party list at the Land (province) level. This system used to produce roughly proportional outcomes (see figure 1) since the allocation of seats to parties depends on the national aggregate of party list votes. Distortions in the votes-seats relationship were relatively low until 2009. Disproportionality beyond the 5 per cent threshold resulted mainly from surplus seats (Überhangsmandate), which were relatively rare before unification in 1990 and exclusively benefited the two major parties, the Social Democrats (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) and the Christian Democratic Union (Christlich Demokratische Union, CDU, along with its Bavarian “sister party,” the Christian Social Union [Christlich Soziale Union, CSU]).
These surplus seats are a result of the allocation of extra seats at the Land level when a party gains more seats in the single-member districts than it would be entitled to according to its vote share on its Land list, the extra seats temporarily increasing the total number of seats in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament.1 The smaller parties objected to the fact that these surplus seats only benefited the major parties and successfully challenged this practice before the Federal Constitutional Court. As a result, parties that did not receive surplus seats are now allocated compensatory seats, effectively restoring overall proportionality beyond the 5 per cent threshold.
This seemingly minor change