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Konrad Werner: It’s a cliffhanger! A cliff-overhanger

Konrad is all excited about the election again. Because of the FDP's abject weakness and Germany's bizarre voting system, it's actually on a knife-edge. Here's why.

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Photo by Sze Ning (Szen; Flickr CC)

All of a sudden the election has become exciting. Just last week it looked like all Germany was going to do this Sunday was pull up a chaise longue in the opium den of its political life and finally take that apathy overdose, disappearing into the peaceful oblivion in the rhombus between Angela Merkel’s huge, nurturing hands. That’s still going to happen, obviously. But the problem for Merkel is that people have become so indifferent and so used to her that they can’t actually find a reason to vote for any other party. Steinbrück has stepped over to the other side of his good sense, the Greens are all disguised paedos, and Die Linke are still too radical for the delicate German stomach.

And then there are Merkel’s “preferred” coalition partners, the FDP. Last Sunday, the FDP crawled, broken and helpless, to three percent in the Bavarian election. For the FDP, three percent this Sunday would mean no government, no coalition, no Bundestag – it would mean being banished to the dog kennel of German politics, among the Pirates and the Nazis and the other comedy parties. For Merkel, meanwhile, a three-percent-FDP would mean being forced into a grand coalition with the SPD, which she says she doesn’t want.

Panic has broken out among the Free Democrats – “This result is a wake-up call for all Liberals,” leader Philipp Rösler said post-Bavaria. Lead candidate Rainer Brüderle was even pithier: “It’s all or nothing!”

But here’s the kicker. It’s a bit technical, but it’s still a kicker, so keep reading, even though it’s to do with overhang mandates. In every other election since 1953, Germany’s abstruse two-vote voting system has given the FDP a king-maker’s advantage as the third strongest party. People living in certain constituencies who wanted certain coalitions – say CDU/FDP (or, as in the 1970s, SPD/FDP) – could make their votes count for more by voting for the big party with their first vote (for the directly elected candidate) and the FDP with their second vote (for the proportional representation half of the parliament). The rules were that if you got more directly-elected candidates than you were entitled to from your number of second votes, you got a few bonus overhang mandates – extra seats in parliament.

That meant CDU supporters who wanted to see a CDU/FDP coalition could strengthen the FDP without weakening their own party. In Baden-Württemberg in the last election in 2009, the CDU won 34.4 percent of the vote, equivalent of 27 Bundestag seats. But they won 37 of the 38 directly-elected seats, who automatically get into parliament – so they got 10 more seats than they were entitled to – 10 overhang mandates.

Up till now it’s been standard practice for all the parties to use this system to campaign for their preferred coalitions. So in certain constituencies, they would be a targetted campaign for the first vote OR the second vote, and you’d see CDU posters with stickers on them saying “Don’t forget! Second vote for the FDP!” Similarly, in constituencies where the SPD was in a close race with the CDU, the Greens would campaign ONLY for the second vote – to help the SPD. This was one of the reasons why the FDP returned its stonking 14.6 percent in 2009.

BUT: since the last election, Germany’s Constitutional Court decided that this was all unfair, because it gave certain voters too much power, and disadvantaged parties who no one wanted to do a coalition with. So the rules have changed in this election: the overhang mandates will be compensated with extra seats for other parties. It’s every man for himself. That means there’s no more advantage to the CDU in offering second votes to the FDP. So no more stickers on campaign posters. And it means that Merkel, as strong a position as she is in, has said: “We have no votes to give away.”

That wouldn’t be so bad for Merkel if the FDP wasn’t such an abject shower that can barely attract five percent of the electorate. But because she is by far the most popular candidate, and CDU voters have no incentive to give them a hand, the election is on a knife-edge between the CDU/FDP and the CDU/SPD grand coalition. So are you tense? Jesus, work with me here. Okay, fine.