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Elections in Germany: principles, procedures, analyzes

The organization of the local elections is a matter for the federal states. This leads to a large number of different electoral systems.

The differentiated voting system in local elections sometimes leads to large-format ballot papers - as here in Frankfurt am Main, where the postal voting slips will be counted on March 6, 2016 in the exhibition hall. Photo: Andreas Heddergott (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

Local elections include the elections of the parliamentary representatives of the municipalities and cities - regardless of their size - as well as direct elections of (lord) mayors as well as the elections to the district assemblies and (with the exception of Baden-Württemberg and Brandenburg) district administrators and district administrators. Several municipalities form an independent city, larger cities form an urban district. In the municipalities and in the cities the representative bodies are the municipal or city councils, in the rural districts the district councils.

The Basic Law regulates the details. It says in Article 28, Paragraph 1: "The constitutional order in the countries must correspond to the principles of the republican, democratic and social constitutional state within the meaning of this Basic Law. In the countries, districts and municipalities, the people must have a representation based on general , direct, free, equal and secret elections. In the case of elections in districts and municipalities, persons who are citizens of a Member State of the European Community are entitled to vote and can be elected in accordance with European Community law elected corporation join the community assembly. "


At the local level - in the districts, municipalities and cities - the citizens must therefore have a representation that has emerged from elections. The electoral principles that apply to the Bundestag and Landtag elections are also to be applied at the municipal level. As an exception, in the last sentence of paragraph 1, the idea of ​​immediate, direct democracy comes into play, which is otherwise missing in the Basic Law with its pronounced representative understanding of democracy: In municipalities, the municipal assembly can take the place of the corporation. This has to do with the fact that in many cases the assembly of all adult community residents can still be a manageable body.

The Basic Law also regulates the municipal right to vote for citizens of a member state of the European Union. According to this, every EU citizen residing in a Member State, even without being in possession of its nationality, has the right to vote and stand for election in local elections. This is what the Maastricht Treaty regulated.

The basis of local elections also includes the provisions that result from the party law. According to this, the Political Parties Act applies the term political party exclusively to parties that participate in federal or state elections. In addition to the parties described in the Political Parties Act, there are free voter communities or town hall parties limited to the municipal level. Although they are not political parties, they must not be excluded from the political decision-making process in the community through legal measures. The legal basis for local self-government is competition between the parties and the electoral communities.

Although local politics will remain the focus for the Free Voting Communities, they occasionally also run for state elections, such as in Bavaria in 2008. There the Free Voters entered a state parliament for the first time in the history of the Federal Republic with 10.2 percent of the vote. According to its own information, around 280,000 members are organized in the Federal Association of Free Voting Communities. Nationwide, the free voters also hold around 40,000 municipal mandates. The southern German states of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria are considered to be their strongholds (Hans-Georg Wehling and Oliver Stortz, 2013).

Municipal constitutional systems

The municipal ordinances in the Federal Republic of Germany could be arranged according to four different models that had developed historically. They differed in terms of the structure of the community leadership and the different distribution of power between the council (as the representative of community citizenship) and the administrative leadership (as the community executive). Today, the southern German council constitution clearly dominates the local electoral system. The direct election of the mayor and the district administrators has been introduced in all federal states (see info box below, in the book on p. 96).


Types of local constitutions

Local constitutions lay down the legal regulations for the organization of local authorities (urban districts, rural communities, association communities). The external (general) municipal constitution contains legal norms about the relationship between the municipality and the state as a whole. Article 28 (2) of the Basic Law generally stipulates the right to local self-government and thus a three-tier federalism (federal, state and local authority). The internal municipal constitution, d. H. the type, composition and formation of the communal organs and thus the different types of communal constitutions result from the regulations of the respective state constitutions and communal ordinances.

As part of an extraordinary adjustment process in the 1990s, the model of the South German Council Constitution (with minor deviations) prevailed almost everywhere; only in the Hessian municipalities and in the city of Bremerhaven does the municipal constitution still apply.
  1. The South German Council Constitution gives the mayor a very strong position. In the basic form, the mayor is directly elected by the population, he chairs the municipality or city council, is both the highest administrative head and the highest representative of the municipality. Opposite it is the community or city council, which is also elected by the population (Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Saxony and the states with a former North German council constitution: Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein, formerly the municipal constitution). In contrast to this, the municipal council in Brandenburg elects a chairman from its own ranks and elects councilors who head the administration under the mayor. In addition to the regulation in Brandenburg, the municipal constitution in Saxony-Anhalt has decision-making and advisory committees that are occupied by the municipal council and chaired by the mayor. The municipal constitution in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania has also provided for directly elected mayors since 1999, who head the main committee and the advisory committees (similar to Saxony-Anhalt), but do not belong to the municipal council. As an alternative to the regulation in Brandenburg, the municipal council in Thuringia is free to elect a chairman from its own ranks (then the mayor and not the mayor is in charge of the council). In North Rhine-Westphalia, the mayor is chairman of the council and, qua office, chairman of the main committee. After the mayors in the states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland are also directly elected by the population, there is practically no difference between the municipal constitutions of these states (formerly: mayor's constitution) and the southern German council constitution.

  2. The magistrate's constitution (Hessen) makes a clear distinction between citizenship and administration. The population elects both the city council and the mayor. He manages the administration according to the collegial principle (as "first among equals") together with the councilors elected by the municipal council.
From: www.bpb.de/nachhaben/lexika/politiklexikon/17722/kommunalverfassungen (accessed: December 16, 2016); Author: Klaus Schubert / Martina Klein

Electoral systems and voting behavior

In the run-up to the local elections in Lower Saxony on September 11, 2016, the CDU and the BOB (Bund Osnabrück Citizens) are campaigning on the Neumarkt in Osnabrück. Photo: Friso Gentsch (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

The precise design of the local elections falls within the legislative competence of the federal states (Karl-Rudolf Korte, 2015). Therefore, the municipalities do not represent a separate level of the political system under constitutional law, but must be assigned to the state level. In Germany, for example, we are dealing with a multitude of different local election laws. The range of variation ranges from pure proportional representation with rigid lists, as in Saarland, to the free compilation of election proposals, as in Bavaria or Baden-Württemberg, using the so-called system of cumulation and variegation.


Cumulate and variegate

To accumulate

When cumulating, those eligible to vote have the option of adding several votes to one applicant. In some federal states, voters either have as many votes as council members are to be elected, or only three votes in total. In both cases you can give a candidate up to three votes.

Varnishing ("distributing in different colors")

This means the possibility of distributing several votes to the candidates from different parties. This allows voters to support individual politicians from different parties in one election process.

Example: Every citizen entitled to vote has as many votes as there are local councils. In Stuttgart that's 60 votes. One possibility: He / she can distribute the votes evenly on the huge ballot paper to the 60 candidates of a party (one vote each). Almost 50 percent of Stuttgart's electorate did so in the last municipal council election in spring 2014.

The rest of them have "cumulatively" given one or more candidates two or three votes, but denied others their favor. Or they have "variegated", that is, given their vote to various candidates on lists from different parties.

Others took the opportunity to do both. An invented but realistic example: Ms. Adler distributed 55 votes to the CDU's list. At the same time, she gave her esteemed neighbor, who lives in the house opposite and is on the SPD list, two votes. The son's friend ran for the green list and was the only one of her color to receive votes from Ms. Adler, three in number.

In the council elections, almost all federal states have now introduced proportional representation systems with free lists. Citizens can therefore accumulate their votes on a candidate ("cumulate") or distribute them to applicants from different lists ("variegate"). These local electoral systems only differ from one another in detail. Eligible voters in Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Lower Saxony, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia can only cast three votes. In Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate, on the other hand, they have as many votes as there are mandates to be awarded.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, which continues to use personalized proportional representation, and in Saarland, cumulation and variegation are not possible. Here, voters still only have one vote, which they can give to a rigid list. In North Rhine-Westphalia, they use this vote to elect both a direct candidate in the constituency and the list of the candidate's party. A threshold clause, which had existed for a long time in some federal states, was declared unconstitutional and repealed by the judgment of the Federal Constitutional Court on February 13, 2008. This means that the chances of voting for smaller or regional parties, municipal electoral communities and individual applicants have increased significantly.


Individual applicants

People who stand in an election without being represented by a party have so far hardly achieved any success in the Bundestag elections. Nevertheless, their share has remained consistently high since the late 1990s. Since the Bundestag election in 1998, at least 51 "real" individual applicants have taken part in the elections (Christian Nestler, 2014). Their motivation varies: sometimes they emphasize the relevance of a specific topic that they do not see represented by the established parties, sometimes they want to protest against the dominance of the parties, demand more direct democracy or simply advertise themselves. In addition, some groups have already applied in the past as a loose network in various constituencies throughout Germany and thus signaled common demands beyond the constituency level. These "fake" individual applicants all give a keyword - for example the peace list in 1987.

Schleswig-Holstein is the only federal state that has a differentiated local electoral system: In small municipalities, elections are made in multiple-person constituencies, while municipalities with more than 10,000 inhabitants have single-person constituencies. In multi-person constituencies, not just one but several direct candidates per constituency join the council. Here the voters have as many votes as there are direct candidates to be elected. The most widespread vote counting method in the federal states is that according to Hare / Niemeyer, but in some states the calculation is also used according to Sainte-Laguë and d'Hondt (see table of municipal electoral law in the federal states, in the book on p. 95).

The candidates to be elected in the municipal elections must be of legal age in all federal states (passive right to vote at 18 years of age). On the other hand, in some federal states such as Schleswig-Holstein or North Rhine-Westphalia (see table on municipal electoral law in the federal states, in the book on p. 95), young people aged 16 and over are allowed to vote.

In addition to the district, council and district representatives, the (upper) mayors and district administrators are usually directly elected at the same time in all federal states. There are hardly any major differences: in all countries, whoever has more than half of the valid votes is elected in the first ballot (absolute majority vote). Exceptions exist in Brandenburg, where an approval quorum is also used in both ballots: Here, 15 percent of those eligible to vote must also have elected the new mayor. If no one has achieved an absolute majority of the votes in the first ballot, there will be a runoff between the two candidates with the most votes. There are further exceptions in Baden-Württemberg and Saxony: Here all candidates and even new applicants can run again on the second ballot. In this election, a simple majority is now sufficient to win the election (relative majority vote). The second ballot usually takes place two weeks after the first election date.

In traditional Bollenhut costume, two women from the Black Forest cast their vote on May 25, 2014 in Hornberg-Reichenbach in the Baden-Württemberg local elections and the European elections. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

In Baden-Württemberg, where the mayoral election takes place separately from the other municipal elections, and in Saxony-Anhalt only individual applicants are admitted to the mayoral election. In Bavaria, on the other hand, only political parties and groups of voters can nominate candidates. In Schleswig-Holstein only individual applicants and candidates from the parties and electoral groups represented in the council stand. All variants are possible in the remaining countries.

The term of office of the directly elected mayor is usually between five and eight years. In Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Schleswig-Holstein, the length of the term of office is determined individually in the main statute of the municipality. In Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania it is between seven and nine years and in Schleswig-Holstein between six and eight years.

The electoral systems have an impact on the local level just like the site-specific features on the election result. The different degrees of organization of the parties at the municipal level often determine the success or failure of the election. The smaller the community, the less important both the traditional role orientations of the parties and those of the voters are. Voting behavior is much more factual and project-oriented than at the state or federal level. Local elections are first and foremost singular elections: Most of the time, voters take greater liberties when voting in local communities and increasingly vote for smaller parties, citizens' groups or even right-wing extremist parties. Good community and district politics are rewarded with an increase in votes, bad ones punished with withdrawal of votes - regardless of the party political couleur. However, local elections are not completely free from federal and state political influences. For example, the Hessian municipal election of March 6, 2016, in which the AfD became the third-strongest force after the CDU and SPD with a nationwide result of 11.9 percent and 223 mandates won, is considered a "memorandum".In the local elections in North Rhine-Westphalia in 1999, many SPD voters stayed at home out of annoyance at the federal government led by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) (Karl-Rudolf Korte, 2009). The following applies today: the municipal landscape has become more colorful and is full of regional and local peculiarities.

Klaus Stuttmann

The influence of the regional associations of the parties on their municipal structures is rather small. Election advertising is often carried out entirely on their own by the municipal, city and district associations of the parties. The advertising is aimed solely at solving problems on the spot. Because the local political issues visibly intervene in the immediate areas of life of the citizens. The voters can choose the party or the electoral association that is committed to community problems such as kindergarten, parking lot or road construction. Local color dominates. Local politics acts at the interface between local and party political areas of relationship. The direct election of the municipal head, which has meanwhile been introduced in many places, not only shifts the balance in the institutional structure in favor of the mayor. This leads to a concentration of power in this position, but also to greater transparency through the clear assignment of responsibilities. Despite this gain in democracy, turnout in local elections is on average significantly lower than in state or federal elections. Apparently the importance of the local elections is classified as less than less important in comparison to the elections at other political levels. Local determinants determine voting behavior: local peculiarities, specific characteristics of the local party system, the existence of local party images, the dominance of a candidate-oriented understanding of politics in the electorate, and last but not least, the characteristics of the local electoral system. The flexible municipal electoral system, especially in rural areas, clearly promotes a stronger orientation towards the respective candidate rather than towards the parties. This reduces the annoyance of the parties.