Despite the expected record number of postal votes, long waits are being reported at many polling stations, with some voters in Berlin waiitng for up to two hours to cast their ballots in person.
Some polling stations in the German capital have reported running out of ballot papers, while deliveries of fresh supplies are being delayed by road closures and crowds attending today’s Berlin marathon.
Election volunteers are handing out chocolates to keep some waiting voters happy …
How does Germany’s electoral system work? Combining directly elected MPs with proportional representation, it is not the world’s simplest.
When voters enter the polling booth, they make two crosses on the ballot paper – one for a direct representative in their local district, the other for their preferred political party.
The first is meant to ensure that each of the coutry’s 299 districts is represented in parliemant, while the second determines the total proportion of seats each party will eventually have.
Ahead of election day, the parties write up “candidate lists” in each of Germany’s 16 states. The names at the top have the biggest chance of getting a seat, and the party with the most votes then gets to send the most MPs to parliament.
If, for example, a party wins three direct seats through the first vote, but is eligible for 10 seats overall through the second vote, seven more names on the party’s list are also given seats. If a party earns more direct seats than it is entitled to through its share of the party vote, it gets them anwyay – so-called “overhang” seats.
This means the Bundestag can expand far beyond its minimum size of 598 seats. A record 709 MPs were returned to parliament in 2017, a figure that could well be exceeded this year as a large number of voters are expected to “split” their votes.
In a bid to avoid excessive fragmentation and stop potentially extremist parties entering parliament, parties which score below 5% of the second vote are exclude. The far-left Die Linke party is flirting with the 5% bar in the polls and whether or not it clear it could be a key factor in post-election coalition arithmetic.
Voters, finally, do not elect the chancellor. That job is down to parliament, which chooses the future head of government by absolute majority – half of all the lower house seats plus one.
Polling station turnout dips, postal votes soar
Voter turnout on the day is slightly down on the previous 2017 vote, the Federal election commissioner has said, with 36.5% of eligible voters casting their ballots nationwide by 2pm local time, compared to 41.1% five years ago – when the final turnout was 72%.
However, the 36.5% figure does not include postal votes, which are predicted to reach 40% or even 50% of the total, smashing all previous records. In 2017, nearly 29% of voters mailed their ballot paper in before polling day.
“As expected, the currently determined voter turnout is lower than the 2017 figure, as we assume a significantly higher proportion of absentee voters whose turnout will be determined at a later date,” the election commissioner, Georg Thiel, said.
Observers say postal votes could pay a significant part in the final result since many will have been cast before Armin Laschet began closing in on his centre-left rival, Olaf Scholz, in recent days, potentially negating the centre-right candidate’s late surge.
Affable but gaffe-prone, CDU leader Armin Laschet – Angela Merkel’s preferred successor as chancellor – blundered again on election day, folding his ballot the wrong way and so revealing to the assembled media which party he had voted for.
His choice was hardly a surprise – Laschet cast both votes for his centre-right party under an election system that allows voters to cast one vote for a representative in the country’s 299 districts, and one for the party they want in parliament.
But under German voting rules voters must keep their choice confidential until they have left the polling station. The website of Germany’s federal election commissioner is crystal clear: voters must fold their ballot paper “in such a way that their vote is not recognisable.”
The mistake sparked calls for Laschet’s vote to be disqualified, as well as ridicule in national newspapers and on social media. The RND group of newspapers wrote on its website that “every schoolchild in Germany knows that voting should be universal, free, direct, equal – and confidential”.
In response to qustions, the election commissioner said Laschet’s vote would not be disqualified because he had voted for his own party, as expected. The rule rule serves to “ensure that other voters are not influenced”, the commissioner said on Twitter.
In this instance, it saw no voter influence, since “a nationally known politician (…) voted for his own party as expected. This does not constitute influencing of the vote,” it added.
The CDU leader’s hopes of succeeding Merkel have revived somewhat in recent days, but he has consistently polled lower than his centre-left SPD rival Olaf Scholz amid a series of gaffes, including being filmed laughing during a visit in July to a town devastated by Germany’s deadliest flooding in more than half a century.
Hello and welcome to the Guardian’s live coverage of Germany’s 2021 federal election, which – whatever its outcome – marks the end of an era: Angela Merkel’s 16 years as chancellor of Europe’s largest economy.
The race is widely seen as one of the most unpredictable in recent history, with about 40% of voters saying they are still undecided and polls narrowing over the past few day to bring Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU alliance almost level with the centre-left SPD.
The latest polling showed the CDU/CSU, led by 60-year-old Armin Laschet, CDU leader and premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, on 23% of the vote, with the SPD, headed by outgoing social democrat finance minister Olaf Scholz, 60, on 25% – a wafer-thin lead that is well within the pollsters’ margin of error.
The election is expected to yield a splintered parliament, forcing the winner to sound out potential partners before trying to form a three-way coalition with a majority in parliament in a process that could take several months, during which Merkel will stay in office in a caretaker capacity.
Most observers predict the most likely scenarios would see either the SPD or the CDU/CSU – whichever finishes first this evening – forming an alliance with the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP). A coalition between the SPD, Greens and the far-left Die Linke is seen as a possible alternative.
Polling opened at Germany’s 88,000 voting stations at 8am and will close at 6pm, with the first exit polls due to be published at the same time.
Together with the Guardian’s Berlin correspondents Philip Oltermann and Kate Connolly, I’ll be bringing you all the latest news, analysis, results and colour from an election whose outcome will set the future course for western Europe’s most populous country – and whose impact will be felt far beyond its borders.