State Election in Lower Saxony: The Intricacies of Electoral Thresholds

By Steffen Zittlau and Thomas Gschwend, University of Mannheim

What is the story?

On January 20, the citizens of the German state of Lower Saxony will elect a new state parliament. These elections are seen as a dress rehearsal for the next federal election in September this year. Angela Merkel for instance plans to speak at a dozen of campaign rallies over the next two weeks.

The latest polling results predict a very close race over who is going to lead the next state government. The charismatic incumbent state prime minister David McAllister’s right-wing conservative CDU is polling at around 40% and will certainly gain the largest vote share (slightly less than at the latest elections in 2008 where they scored at about 43%). Despite the strength of the CDU, McAllister may however not be able to remain state prime minister. At least three realistic coalition scenarios exist.

Scenario 1: The CDU and the FDP

One possibility is the continuation of the incumbent coalition formed by the CDU and its current junior coalition partner in the state government, the centre-right liberal FDP. However, according to latest polls, the incumbent coalition will just fall short of gaining a majority of the seats. Moreover, the FDP may loose a lot of support and only gain around 5% of the votes compared to their 8% in 2008. This brings them dangerously close to the electoral threshold of 5%. If the FDP falls below 5%, they will loose representation in the parliament. This will take this scenario off the table (see Figure 1).




Figure 1: Seat projections if the FPD passes the 5% threshold (right) or not (left). Note: Seat shares are hard to predict in Germany since the total number of seats in parliament is not fixed.

Scenario 2: The SPD and the Greens

A coalition consisting of the social democratic SPD and the Green party would be a viable government coalition, as these parties signaled that they would like to form a new coalition government and are presently polling at 33% and 13%, respectively (30% and 8% in 2008). According to these polls, even if the FDP passes the 5% threshold though, this coalition will gain a short majority of the seats (see Figure 1).

Scenario 3: A “Grand Coalition”

The options outlined above are subject to the assumption that neither the radical socialist Left nor the free-internet Pirate Party, which are both polling at 3-4%, overcomes the 5% threshold. If one or both of these parties should enter the legislature, all bets are off. In a five- or six-party parliament, an absolute majority of seats for either a CDU-FDP or a SPD-Greens coalition is unlikely. Even though a CDU or SPD minority government would be possible, the most likely option in that case is a CDU-led “Grand Coalition” with the SPD (see Figure 2).





Figure 2: Seat projection in a five-party parliament

Consequence: Mixed incentives for voters

A close multi-party race in combination with such an electoral system leads to unclear expectations about who is going to form the new coalition government in Lower Saxony. Voters could have weird counter-intuitive strategic incentives, e.g. a conservative CDU supporter who most prefers a CDU-SPD coalition should cast her party list vote for the Left or the Pirate Party in order to prevent both a CDU-FDP and SPD-Green coalition to gain a majority of seats in the new parliament. To the contrary, a more economically right-wing CDU supporter could cast a strategic vote for the FDP in order to help this party overcome the threshold and to keep at least the possibility of a reelection of the CDU-FDP government on the table. It remains to be seen how voters and parties deal with this situation during the last days of the campaign and, later, in the government formation process.

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