Voting is in progress as we speak in Germany, where Angela Merkel seeks a third term as chancellor, an office she assumed in 2005. The election night timetable in Germany looks pretty similar to our own, with polling stations to close at 6pm (2am Australian eastern standard time), followed immediately by the publication of exit polls. The first results should come in within half an hour, with a clear picture to emerge a few hours later.
Germany’s elections are conducted under the mixed-member proportional system that has more-or-less been copied wholesale by New Zealand, the upshot of which is that representation will be proportional among parties which clear a 5% threshold. Voters elect local constituency representatives to the Bundestag, but these seats are topped up with party list seats so as to produce a proportional result. As in New Zealand, there is a slight element of messiness in the system in that it is possible for a party to win more constituency seats than its national support entitles it to, resulting in what is known to German as überhangmandaten and to English as overhang seats. Their effect is to create variability in the number of seats in the Bundestag, the number after the 2009 election being 622 from a base of 598.
The parties which will most certainly clear the 5% threshold are the ruling Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union; its main opponent, the Social Democratic Party (whose candidate is Peer Steinbrück); and two parties of the left, the Greens and Die Linke (The Left). Straddling the exclusion threshold is the Free Democratic Party, who as free-market liberals are natural allies of the CDU/CSU, and the new Euro-sceptic party Alternative for Germany. The FDP has crashed badly over the past term and appears set for its worst performance since its establishment after the war. Die Linke is in part the descendant of the ruling party of East Germany, which makes it too linke for an alliance with the Social Democrats.
A clear change of government would thus involve the Social Democrats and the Greens collectively achieving a majority or something close to it, which with the Social Democrats polling in the low to mid-20s and the Greens looking at about 10% is fairly clearly not in prospect. Realistic outcomes are thus either a continuation of the current centre-right coalition between the CDU/CSU and the FDP, or a grand coalition between the CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats such as was formed when Angela Merkel first came to power after the 2005 election, in which half of the sixteen cabinet seats went to the Social Democrats. With the CDU/CSU polling at around 40%, the clearance or otherwise of the threshold by the FDP could well decide the outcome between the two alternative scenarios. Given the state of the polling, it would take a big surprise for the Social Democrats to be in a position to assume seniority in a grand coalition.
My favourite online interactive toy in relation to the election is this effort from Der Spiegel, providing a constituency-level display of federal election results going back the first post-war election in West Germany in 1949. The best place to follow the results would look to be Deutsche Welle.