Germany is heading to the polls -- here's everything you need to know about the election

  • Germans are heading to the polls for the country’s general election.
  • Chancellor Angela Merkel is widely expected to remain in power.
  • There has been growing support for far-right party AfD, which could post its best performance in an election since the Nazis.
  • The highly accurate exit poll should be published by around 7 p.m. local time.
  • The result could have an impact on Brexit, with Merkel’s main opponent Martin Schulz believing that Britain should be punished for leaving the EU.

Germans are heading to the polls to vote for a new parliament — and possibly a new leader — in an election that could alter the future of the country, the EU, and Brexit.

Incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel, representing the Christian Democratic Party and its sister party the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), is widely expected to win the election.

The Social Democratic Party (SPD), led by former European Parliament president Martin Schulz, is expected to come second.

The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party is also projected to win seats in the election — the first time a far-right party has sat in the German parliament since the collapse of the Nazi party in 1945.

Here’s what you need to know about Sunday’s German election.

German election: The basics

Germany ReichstagSean Gallup/GettyThe Reichstag in Berlin, where the Bundestag sits.

The German government is legally required to hold elections for a new lower house of parliament, or Bundestag, every four years.

They traditionally take place on a Sunday, with polls opening at 8 a.m. and closing at 6 p.m. local time. Highly accurate exit polls will be published around 7 p.m. local time (6 p.m. BST/1 p.m. EDT), the Telegraph said.

After official results come out, a new government will be formed. This will most likely be a coalition, for reasons that will be explained below, and is a process that can take months.

The Federal President, currently Frank-Walter Steinmeier, will also propose a candidate for the chancellorship, and new MPs will vote on the candidate. A candidate needs at least 312 votes from MPs before he or she is officially appointed.

Merkel is widely expected to be appointed for a fourth term as chancellor.

How the elections work

On Sunday, Germans will cast two votes — one for a local MP, and another for a political party. A minimum of 598 seats are available in the Bundestag.

The first vote for the local MP works in a first-past-the-post fashion, like in British elections. Whoever receives the most votes in a constituency will win a seat in the parliament. Some 299 — or half of the 598 available seats — will be allocated by this vote.

The second vote for the political party allocates MPs to the remaining seats by proportional representation. In order to be allocated a seat, however, a party must gain at least 5% of the national vote.

This is where it gets a bit confusing.

Sometimes, a party might win more seats at the constituency level (in the first vote) than they should be allocated based on proportional representation (in the second vote).

When this happens, the party is allowed to keep these extra seats, which are called “overhang seats.”

But then more seats have to be added to ensure the equal distribution of the seats under the proportional representation method. These additional seats are called “balance seats.”

In other words, the Bundestag might well have more than 598 MPs by the end of Sunday. The last parliament, which was voted in 2013, had a total of 631 seats: 598 existing, minimum seats, four overhang seats, and 28 balance seats.

What type of government to expect

Because the German election system guarantees such proportionate representation, it’s unlikely one single party will emerge with a parliamentary majority.

The party with the most votes will most likely need to set up a coalition with another party to form a majority. This may take months to set up.

The CDU/CSU won 311 seats — five seats short of a parliamentary majority — in the 2013 election. It formed a “grand coalition” with the SPD, more than two months after results came out.

Voter turnout for the 2013 parliamentary elections was about 70%, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

The main contenders and their chances

These parties are poised to win seats:

CDU/CSU: Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union and its sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, automatically go into coalition at every election. The union is popular among most young people in the country, who above all other issues support Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis, according to BuzzFeed.

As of Friday, German pollsters said the CDU/CSU will likely win about 36% of the national vote.

SPD: The centre-left Social Democratic Party’s popularity surged earlier this year after Martin Schulz left his post as president of the European Parliament this February. Schulz, who dropped out of high school to pursue a career in football, initially appealed to many voters as a man of the people, the New York Times reported. Support for Schulz and his party has faded, however.

The SDP is on course to win about 22% of the national vote.

Martin Schulz GermanySascha Schuermann/GettySPD leader and former European Parliament president Martin Schulz.

AfD: The four-year-old, far-right Alternative für Deutschland runs on an anti-immigrant, anti-same-sex marriage, and anti-euro ticket. Support for the AfD plummeted after it was beset by infighting this year, when members voted to expel senior party figure Björn Höcke for saying Germany should stop feeling guilty for Nazi crimes.

The party is now led by Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, an openly gay ex-banker, who once praised Donald Trump for calling Merkel “insane.” Pollsters predict it could scoop up 10% of the national vote.

Afd rally anti Merkel GermanyThomas Lohnes/GettyAfD supporters at a rally in Heppenheim, Germany.

Free Democratic Party (FDP): The pro-business, free-market liberal party, led by Christian Lindner, served in a coalition with Merkel’s CDU/CSU between 2009 and 2013. The party failed to pass the 5% mark in the 2013 election, and thus lost all of its seats. It’s now expected to win about 10% of the vote.

The Greens: This party is mainly focused on the environment, migration, and inequality. One of its leaders, Simone Peter, told the Financial Times that Merkel only offered “headlines” but failed to enact real change. The party is, however, open to forming coalitions with the CDU/CSU and FDP, the FT said. It’s currently polling around 10%.

The Left: The far-left party has campaigned heavily on workers’ rights, including raising the minimum wage, raising state pensions, universal healthcare, and building affordable housing, according to Deutsche Welle. It is, however, beset by internal divisions, with some members still calling for an end to economic capitalism.

Merkel ruled out forming coalitions with the AfD and Left parties, Reuters reported last month. The SPD also refused to govern with the Left, but did not say anything about the AfD.

You can see the predictions of seven accredited pollsters here.

What it could mean for Brexit

Germany is the most powerful country in the EU, so although the United Kingdom will continue negotiating with EU representatives, this election could have an impact on Brexit.

Merkel said last month the UK was obliged to pay a Brexit divorce bill, which UK Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed it would pay in her Florence speech on Friday. Meanwhile, her chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, described Brexit negotiations last month as “difficult” and “will mean a severe loss, not only for the UK but also for the EU.”

If Schulz becomes the next German chancellor, however, we might expect Brexit negotiations to be even harder. Earlier this year, as president of the EU Parliament, Schulz accused Cameron of “taking a whole continent hostage for a party internal struggle” and threatened “the hardest Brexit possible,” according to the Telegraph.

David Davis, the UK’s Brexit negotiator, said he was “optimistic” about the election, the FT reported earlier this month.

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