On September 18th, 2005, Germans will vote on a new Bundestag (= parliament) and thereby also on a new chancellor. Here are all the facts you need to know in order to understand what is going on: Who may vote?
All Germans aged 18 and up who are registered with their local authorities. How does the vote work?
Every voter has two votes: one for a direct candidate for his district and one for a party. In any district, the direct candidate with the most votes is sent as representative to the Bundestag, independantly of how his party does. Additionally, the votes from all districts for each party are added up and the party is allocated a number of seats relative to the amount of votes. These seats are filled according to the party's internal list of candidates. Only parties who get less than 5% are not represented.
Once the new composition of parliament has been found, parties try to build a coalition that would give them a majority (it's unlikely that one single party has the majority on its own) and there is a vote on who will be the chancellor. The chancellor then presents his cabinet, usually consisting of members of the coalescing parties and occasionally a neutral expert. Which parties are eligible?
More than 40 parties are eligible, however, all but 5 of them account for less than 5% total, so they're never represented. The 5 that are usually represented in parliament are the following (left to right):
Linkspartei/PDS: "Left party / party of democratic Socialism": originally, this small party was just the PDS, a leftover of the GDR's only party and hence shunned by all respectable parties. Last year, it merged with a group of disappointed SPD members in an attempt to improve its image and gain more voters, particularly in the Western part of Germany.
SPD: "German social-democratic party": one of the big center parties. Somewhat leftist, but reforming the social systems all the same.
Grüne: "Greens": a small environmentalist and pacifist party.
CDU: "Christian-democratic union": the other big center party. Somewhat more liberal, but it would probably still be considered left of the center in the USA.
FDP: "Free German party": a small liberal party. Who is going to win?
Good question. A few weeks ago, it looked like there was no way the CDU could fail to get a majority with their coalescing partner FDP, and their candidate, Angela Merkel, would therefor become Germany's first female chancellor. However, Gerhard Schröder (the current chancellor, supported by a coalition of SPD and Grüne) has now managed to cause a stir and gain back a lot of SPD voters. It still isn't enough for a SPD+Grüne coalition, but neither is it enough for a CDU+FDP coalition anymore. Possible solutions: a Grand Coalition (SPD+CDU), a traffic light coalition (SPD+FDP+Grüne), a red-red-green coalition (SPD+Linkspartei+Grüne) or something really unexpected. Why the elections now?
Normally, the next federal elections should only have been in 2006. However, due to immense protests against his reforms (even within his party) and due to the CDU blocking most decisions via the Bundesrat (more or less the same as the house of representatives), Gerhard Schröder decided to lose a vote of confidence. That gave the federal president the right to organise new elections in order to have a government supported by the majority.
The latest controversy is about the case of Dresden I. That district's NPD (right-extremist) candidate died suddenly and now Dresden I won't be able to vote till October. Additionally, the election result may be contested because citizens from that area have the possibility of a 'strategic vote' and there is no federal law providing for a case like this.