Surprise called off some weeks ago in the city of Meissen in the German state of Saxony. The conservative mayor of the so-called “city of porcelain”, Olaf Raschke, managed to defend his office by just a fraction against surprise candidate Frank Richter, a theologian, former civil rights advocate in Eastern Germany and both known and contested for trying to get into discussions with right-wing protesters.
A Weird Case
In the first round, Richter (supported by a local citizen’s alliance) managed to take the lead from scratch. However, none of the candidates could secure more than half of the votes. Hence, in the second round, it was just about securing the first place. With two hopeless minor candidates dropping out, only a liberal candidate remained to join the face-off, which incumbent Raschke won by a razor-thin margin of 97 votes. But did he really win? According to the electoral law, indeed he did.
But is it fair? That’s to question. 1 500 Meissen citizens didn’t vote for either Raschke or Richter, but the liberal contestant – that’s almost every seventh ballot. The incumbent with a good 40 percent is far away from having the support of the majority of voters. But he won – that’s the way the law wants it. But would he still have kept the city hall if he had faced Richter one-on-one? We will never know. Election law gone nuts.
But how could a fair electoral law for more than two candidates look like?
Across Germany, there are different ways to decide. In the past, in some places in Germany Mr Richter would have taken the city hall easily – the first round and more votes than the runner-up were enough. Elsewhere, it’s a bit harder – according to the law in force, Richter would have faced his opponent one-on-one.
Ironically, the most elegant way can be found in the good old United States, commonly well known for crazily-crafted electoral laws – from the “electoral college” to “gerrymandering”. But as we say in Germany, even a blind hen sometimes finds a grain of corn, in this case of the Senate elections in the State of Maine.
The incumbent Senator was running neither on the democratic nor the republican ticket, but as an independent – and was consequently facing off against two contenders. Until the recent election, the candidate who would gain most votes, even if it was less than half in sum, was declared winner. But Maine citizens are having none of that any more. They put numbers on the ballot. 1, 2, 3. The “1”s are counted, and the weakest candidate will drop out whenever no absolute majority is reached. His ballots will be redistributed according to the “2”s to the other two candidates. One of them will ultimately have more votes than the other and will make his way to Washington D.C. well-deserved. Electoral law gone nuts? Much to the contrary – electoral law nailing it. Meissen should learn from Maine – and the federal level of Germany as well. The winner would be democracy.
Democracy – it’s not only simple voting, simple ticking of boxes.
Democracy means that when you cast your vote, your will is transferred with it. It can’t be the will of the German people to get an ever-bigger parliament randomly. If you didn’t know, there’s quite a fuss about federal election law, which can cause an enormous growth of the number of seats, with a current plus of more than 100 to a sum of just above 700 MPs in total. “Politics”, as a longtime parliamentarian once roughly put it, “means that it’s our duty to always get the best possible result for the people”.
This must be true especially for electoral law. The lawmakers drafting a reform of the federal electoral law should keep these words in mind. With an overfull plenary, it’s not the time for half-baked compromises any more. It’s time for a hand-tight, functioning solution which will prevail the next couple of elections and restores the electorates trust into the countries’ most important democratic institution.
Changing Election Law
The absolute majority system which made its debut in the US this fall could be implemented for Germany without any problems. It would, for mathematical reasons which can’t be explained in short, solve the seat growth issue. The Bundestag, which in the past didn’t get tired of emphasizing how complicated a reform is, doesn’t have any excuse any more – apart from the unwillingness of its parliamentarians.
For sure, their very own interests are at stake, as some MPs would eventually loose their seats. But this fact must not be an excuse. That’s what the MPs owe their taxpayers. It is not just about the amount of money needed to run parliament business, which is – with approximately one billion euros per year – high enough to complain about. It is a symbol for the (in)competence of politicians to regain the trust of the German people which they carelessly destroyed in the last months and years.
The Bundestag Must Act Now
The German Bundestag has two options. Either they find a shady compromise, which preserves the existing problem, allows a record parliament of about 800 seats in the next election and thereby crushes the remains of ordinary people’s trust in the Berlin politics bubble. Or else, they realize that there must be serious change, that they must reach their hands out to voters, and hand them an instrument with real power over the selection of MPs. The absolute majority system, if implemented, would strengthen the dialogue between politicians and voters on the ground and thereby revitalize peoples trust into the democratic system.
Whether they choose the US system, copy the French one with a second round of voting or else – the details are secondary. The key point is whether political Berlin manages to overcome its abstract fears over losing some seats and instead chooses to show that they understand what is at stake, and that they trust its people. The absolute majority system is the very least they can do.
The cards are on the table, it’s time for parliament to make its move.