German Federal Elections: Complex calculations that point to a coalition

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The Independent Online
BONN - There can be only one near-certainty about Germany's parliamentary elections: that they will not produce an absolute majority, writes Steve Crawshaw.

The political system is structured in such a way that coalitions are almost inevitable. Equally, however, the voting jigsaw means that small variations, even in one constituency, can have big knock-on effects in Bonn.

Half the seats in the Bundestag are directly elected, first-past-the-post seats, as in the UK. This is the Erststimme, or first vote, and it is crucial for the survival of at least one of the parties hoping to enter parliament.

The second vote, the Zweitstimme, based on proportional representation, is crucial for minority parties that otherwise would not gain seats. But during this campaign all parties have, more than ever before, emphasised the importance of the second round in determining the shape of the future parliament.

The proportionally determined seats are allotted by working down a list of party candidates, according to the share of the second vote gained. Thus, the higher the second vote for a given party, the further down the list of candidates the cut-off point will be.

The main proviso - crucial for Helmut Kohl's present coalition allies, the Free Democrats - is that a party must gain 5 per cent of the vote to gain seats at all. The rule is intended to prevent parliament fragmenting into an infinite number of tiny parties. But the Free Democrats have repeatedly fallen below the 5 per cent line in Land elections in recent months. If it does so again, its share would suddenly slump from 79 seats to nil. If the Free Democrats fail to get in, this would almost certainly leave Mr Kohl unable to form a parliamentary majority with any of his natural allies.

The second crucial unknown affects the PDS, the successor to the East German Communists. For the PDS, the rules affecting both first and second votes will be of key importance. In the first elections to a united German parliament in December 1990, a special dispensation was made for the new east German parties, which allowed the temporary waiving of the 5 per cent rule. This allowed both Alliance 90, a group that emerged from the East German opposition, and the PDS to take seats in Bonn, although they did not exceed 5 per cent nationwide.

Now the rules have reverted to normal. The east is no longer a special case. The PDS, despite a strong showing in the east, where it regularly gains about 20 per cent in regional elections, will be lucky to squeeze past the 5 per cent hurdle, when averaged out nationwide.

This is where an exception to the second vote rules may come to the PDS's rescue. If a party gains a minimum of three first-vote mandates under the first-past-the-post system, then it is also allowed to collect seats in the Bundestag proportionate to its nationwide strength, even with less than 5 per cent of the national vote.

The PDS is especially strong in east Berlin, not least because this was the stronghold of the old Communist apparatus. As with the Free Democrats and their second vote, the first vote could thus be an all-or-nothing contest for the PDS. If the PDS gains three seats, then it can expect to pick up 20 or 30 seats in the Bundestag, on the basis of its national share of the vote. If, however, it loses the third seat by one vote, then it may not be represented in the Bundestag at all.

Because of the political 'lurch' effect - from nil to 20 or more seats, with just a handful of votes - any confident predictions are in danger of being proved badly wrong.

(Photograph omitted)

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