After monitoring the American election last year and casting my vote in the French presidential and parliamentary election a few months ago, I’ve just voted for the German parliament (“Bundestag”). Next Sunday, Germans will be heading to the ballot box to elect the new Bundestag. It’s time to share my observations of the political differences between Germany and the US.
Next Sunday, Germans will vote for their parliament or Bundestag. The new Bundestag has then to elect the new chancellor, and it’s almost certain that Angela Merkel will win comfortably a fourth term in office. Yes, there is no restriction in office terms for the chancellor, which is the first difference between Germany and the US. Merkel held this office for 12 years; if she is reelected, she would surpass the 16-year record of late chancellor Kohl.
Varying election methods in the US and Germany
Can you imagine choosing your president from among 18 parties? That’s the selection that Germans are facing in 2017. Of course, not every part has a viable shot at a seat at the Bundestag, they have to beat a 5% hurdle of all casted votes. In the end, Germany will send five or six parties to parliament. If none of them has an absolute majority, they will work together to form a coalition. For more insight, I recommend this online article from Deutsche Welle.
To be honest, I prefer this pluralism to the American two-party system. Of course, other factors make me feel uncomfortable with the American system.
First, American politicians seem to spend half their time campaigning. This is particularly true for congressmen, who are elected for two years only, as well as for presidential candidates. Since they aren’t financed by their party (which is the case in Germany), I understand that they can’t afford to stop raising money for their campaign. Under those circumstances, I don’t see their loyalty swaying toward a party program but toward serving the most generous donators.
The winner-takes-all in the US vs. the proportional system in Germany
Germans are known for being exhaustively precise and lovers of accuracy. Therefore, it’s no wonder that the German political system is a mix of proportional and majority systems. This ensures that a party receives exactly the proportion of seats in parliament as the proportion of vote they get, as long as they pass the 5% hurdle.
Of course, I’m not a political scientist. My opinion is also biased by my cultural background. However, even if I accept the legitimacy of the last US presidential election, it’s hard for me and many Germans to understand how the majority of Americans voted for another candidate and weren’t heard. Which also brings me to my next difference between Germany and the US.
What’s the point of gerrymandering?
Last year, I was proud of myself when I finally understood the meaning of gerrymandering. This article helped me a lot: The Best Explanation of Gerrymandering You will Ever See
I understand that gerrymandering has no or little influence on the presidential election, but it affects Congress, and Congress makes laws and decisions that influence our daily lives. In 2013, my first year in the US, the government shut down for over two weeks because the Congress couldn’t agree on a budget. I have no doubt that if both the Senate and the House shared the same political color, this wouldn’t have happened.
Who has the most power: the President of the United States or the Chancellor of Germany?
The President of the United States is the most powerful man in the world– at least according to assumptions in the US and much of Western Europe.. A 2016 Rasmussen survey found out that 47% of Americans thought the President was the most powerful person in the world. But, is he really?
George Washington and the other founding fathers took steps to avoid the trap of absolute power in the hand of a single person. That leaves a lot of power to the House, which is often hostile to the president. In Germany, the Bundeskanzler (German for “Chancellor”) is elected by parliament, which means that he or she is backed by the political majority and can ensure that every proposed law will pass.
Another difference between Germany and the US
This is one of my husband’s favorite discussion topics: the ideological positions of political parties in the United States compared to Germany or France. Philosophically, American parties are on the right of their French and German counterparts. Some people in the Republican Party are so extreme that I doubt they could ever run for office in Germany. At the same time, the mainstream German conservative party CDU is probably too liberal for Americans.
You can read more about differing ideologies in the following article: What you need to know about Germany’s political parties.
Yes, Catherine has cast her vote!
Because I’ve held German citizenship since 2010, this was only my second time voting for the Bundestag. When I received my absentee ballot, I couldn’t remember the process. I stared at the long sheet of paper with two columns and read the instructions but felt lost. Come on, Germany, does everything have to be so complicated? I just want to circle my favorite candidate, not analyze the ballot like a PhD thesis!
For the purpose of this blog, I did some online research looking at American ballots. Ouch, Americans also seem to like complicated forms, but at least the candidates’ names (Stein, Johnson, Trump, and Clinton) were all printed clearly in the samples I found. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case on the German ballot.
Thank God, my good German friend Christina was available to explain the process to me over the phone. I won’t go at all into the details, but rest assured that I understood the requirements, checked one box per column, and sent my absentee vote to Germany where it will be counted. (Good job, Catherine!)
Have you noticed other differences between elections in Germany and the US? This blog thrives on your comments, so don’t hesitate to share your thoughts!