Salem, Oregon, a few days before election day 11/02/2010: the TV programs are full of campaign commercials. One politician points out the failures of his opponent and bawls him down. Then for a comparatively short amount of time he praises what he would do better if you vote for him. The main difference that I recognized between political campaigns in Germany is the fact that in Germany this kind of commercial is forbidden. No matter if it is a political or a normal commercial, comparative advertising is not allowed. The whole body of political campaigns seems to be different, as well as the political system and elections themselves. So let me explain, what you would have to do if you were allowed to vote in Germany.
How to vote in Germany and what your vote actually determines
Every citizen 18 years of age and over is eligible to vote but it is not compulsory to do so. You get registered automatically. To vote you have to be in your hometown on the very day of the elections usually between 8am and 6pm. If you cannot come you can vote by mail. When you get to the polling spot you have to show your ID and get an envelope with ballot papers and instructions. You sit down in a small booth and tick two boxes. With your first vote you elect individuals in local districts. They will take half of the 656 seats in the Bundestag (parliament). The other half will be filled up by party members, depending on their percentage of votes. Therefore with your second vote you elect a party. So the second vote is decisive for determining a party’s total number of seats in the Bundestag, while the first vote partly influences which members of the party will have seats.
Germany has a multi-party system with the two dominant parties being the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). A party will only be represented in the Bundestag if it gains at least 5% of the votes. You could describe the electoral system of the Federal Republic of Germany as a form of ‘personalized’ proportional representation.
During the last weeks before the election the parties publish their programs, name chancellor (head of the federal government) candidates and, because in this multi-party system it is hard for one party to gain the majority, name coalition partners. These are pretty important factors for the elections.
The German government today
Today the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) are governing in a coalition. Angela Merkel (CDU) is chancellor and this makes her the first woman to be so since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949. She is the most important political figure in Germany, the role of the president instead is mostly representative. This is Merkels’ second term of office. In the first one she was chancellor of a grand coalition between the the two major parties CDU and SPD.
Recent political discussions and problems
The recent political climate in Germany is a little bit tense. The reason for that is a large project in Stuttgart, a big city in the south-western part of Germany, referred to as ‘Stuttgart-21‘ or just ‘S-21’. This project has some positive aspects like generating jobs, improving the connection and the image of the city. Despite all that a major part of the city’s citizens is against this project. They would prefer a cheaper and less prestigious alternative to reconstructing it, so that there would still be money left for other more urging reconstructions. The opponents criticize the doubtful estimations of costs and time needed to fulfill this large project and feel overlooked. This feeling seems to evolve throughout the country is various respects and people urge for more propositions.
On September, 30th 2010 this conflict took on dramatic scale. To catch the attention of the media and the general public the opponents organized a big demonstration against the project. The atmosphere was so emotionally charged that the situation escalated and the police used water cannons, pepper spray and riot sticks. The police department apologized for these actions, which are more than uncommon in Germany. This incident became a huge topic and still is. The administration of the federal state in which these actions took place is now analyzing what exactly happened. The atmosphere is still heated and several voices long for more propositions. This atmosphere seems to encourage other demonstrations, as the movement against nuclear power seems to undergo a revival.
General political discussions
Next to this rather temporary problem, current political discussions basically cover topics like the improvement of the health care system, immigration and integration policies, how to decrease unemployment and how to deal with the fact that our society is getting older without generating enough young people to stabilize our basically tax-financed pension system.