he Consequences of Germany’s Mixed Electoral System

Bernard Owen

Amanda Taub (« Why Democracy Feels Like a Dangerous Game  » posted below) asks the wrong questions about German democracy.  The enquiry is welcome but our approach is different than hers.

I have been working on that question for years as it is the  subject of my Ph.D. degree thesis, which I obtained from Panthéon Sorbonne University.


Democracies do not just happen.  There are many elements to consider and, most importantly, the electoral ssystem which will decide whether the party that wins the election obtainsamajority of the seats in Parliament.

What surprised us is that the issue of electoral systems is never mentioned in the article, and, in particular, the mixed system that Germany uses to elect the Bundestag.

We usually write on politics for our French readers.  In professor Owen’s November 2013 article,  « Allemagne : que doit-on retenir en 2013 à partir des élections de 2009 et les autres ? »  he predicted the present difficulties of Chancellor Merkel in forming a government.

But we have also English-speaking readers. We have written a book about electoral systems that was published by Palgrave MacMillan.  It is entitled « Proportional Western Europe: The Failiure of Governance. »

In that « …Failure of Government », We explain the essential role of electoral systems in the formation of governments. We analyze them in a comparative manner and in their historical context.  It includes the French Fourth Republic, notoriously unstable, and the tragic German Weimar Republic.

In 19932 the use of different types of proportional represenation was understandable as little was known as to their effects.  But in 2017, 85 years after Hitler’s election Europeans, but not only, should try to understand the workings of proportional Representation.  Ferdinand A. Hermens, a German profesor  at Cologne University, who fled the Nazi takeover understood right away and wrote about the subject in America.

New York Times

Why Democracy Feels Like a Dangerous Game

The Interpreter


For the past 18 months, political analysts have issued dire warnings about the likelihood that far-right parties could gain power and influence in elections. Then, when the parties merely broke historical records, rather than winning control of their government, those same analysts would breathe a sigh of relief.

But that repeated dance may have led us to overlook another, more subtle but possibly more systemic risk, present even if the far right is only a minority. The problem is that far-right parties may win seats in elections, but they end up having little power because mainstream parties shut them out. This, in turn, angers their supporters, fueling complaints that the system is rigged.

And that worry seems pressing in light of the struggle by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to build a workable coalition government after her party again failed to win a majority.

Ms. Merkel is facing a daunting choice. She can continue her efforts to create a coalition, even though all potential parties have so far been unwilling. If those attempts fail, Ms. Merkel has signaled that she would prefer new elections over her other option of forming a minority government.

Stated another way, she must decide whether to rely on voters or on institutions.

Those are the two most fundamental building blocks of democracy. But in Germany, as in much of the rest of the West right now, both seem increasingly unreliable.

The result is that democracy now feels like a dangerous game. And even Ms. Merkel, arguably the Western leader who plays it best, has not figured out how to win.

Democracy … Except Some Votes Don’t Really Count

As the far right rises across Europe, mainstream parties, seeing an existential threat to liberal democracy, have searched for ways to contain its influence. The solution that major European powers like France and Germany have settled on — and that will be a component of any solution to Ms. Merkel’s current dilemma — is a so-called cordon sanitaire against the far right.

The term, which roughly translated means “quarantine” in French, means sealing off the far right from any power or influence, no matter how many votes it wins. Mainstream parties will not allow the far right into political coalitions or work with it on joint legislation. In Germany’s case, that means an absolute refusal to allow the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, into any governing coalition. The party recently won seats in Germany’s national legislature for the first time.

In the short term, such policies have effectively limited the influence of both longstanding far-right parties like the National Front in France and insurgent upstarts like the AfD. To the many politicians and citizens who fear what might happen if the far right were to exercise real power, that feels like an important victory.

But in the longer term, it turns out to have unintended side effects, making the underlying problems worse — with potentially serious consequences for democracy.

David Art, a professor at Tufts University who studies the European far right, said the mismatch between the votes the far right receives and the influence it wields was one of the “greatest untold stories” of far-right politics.

Policies devised to lock the far right out of power mean far-right voters “have gotten extremely little bang for their buck,” Professor Art said. “You have somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of the European electorate casting its votes for parties that are credibly shut out.”

And shutting a large populist party out of power for years has consequences for the political system itself, not just for that party and its voters.

As the far right’s share of the vote grows, that increases pressure on mainstream parties to cooperate with each other to present a united front and contain the threat. This can mean forming a grand coalition, in which the two largest parties join together despite their political differences.

The result, Professor Art said, is that mainstream politics can start to look like an elite cartel, in which establishment parties must maintain consensus to govern, and so are limited to an increasingly narrow lane of policy options regardless of what voters demand or issues require.