Why do people vote for a political party

Elections in Germany: principles, procedures, analyzes

Elections legitimize political rule, control those in power and guarantee that politics are bound by the opinions of those in power. The government remains politically accountable to the electorate through the elections.

Voting at a polling station in Bad Vilbel on September 22, 2013: Around 62 million citizens were called on that day to participate in the decision-making process for the 18th Bundestag. In Hesse, a new state parliament was also elected on the same day. Photo: Frank Rumpenhorst (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)


Because of the free elections that take place regularly, politics must always take into account the aspect of temporary rule. If they want to be re-elected, those responsible for politics must take into account the opinion and will-formation of the electorate. This applies regardless of whether crosses on the ballot paper change the balance of power or not. The citizens' ability to influence politics is therefore more extensive and longer-term than the short election act suggests - provided that there are actually different people, parties and programs to choose from. Parties and politicians react to trends in public opinion and take into account the expectations and reactions of those who voted for them in their decisions. Karl R. Popper aptly described this connection: "Every government that can be got rid of has a strong incentive to behave in such a way that one is satisfied with it. And this incentive disappears when the government knows that you are can't get rid of them that easily. "

The citizens not only decide on the distribution of political power for a certain period of time, they also legitimize it. Government can only be legitimate if it is based on some form of consent from the governed. Elections legitimize political rule, control those in power and guarantee that politics are bound by the opinions of those in power. The government remains politically accountable to the electorate through the elections. The election act is an active participation in the political decision-making process. But those who do not vote also exert influence. The level of voter turnout has an impact on the result. Depending on the type of election, the voters can decide on the composition of the parliaments, the formation of a government and thus the political programs of the coming years. The effects of voting are many. It means much more than deciding who will form the future government.

The topic of "elections" is analyzed in three steps in the following chapters:
  • First of all, there is an introductory consideration of the characteristics of voting systems. To classify and illustrate the German electoral system, reference is repeatedly made to the electoral systems in Great Britain and France; the advantages and disadvantages of majority and proportional representation are weighed against each other in this way.

  • In a second step (Chapters 3–6), the federal, European Union, federal states and municipalities look at the different levels at which elections take place in the Federal Republic of Germany, and the specific features of these election files are worked out.

  • The three-step process is completed by analytical considerations (Chapters 7–9) on the areas of election research, behavior at the polls and election campaigns.
Elections and democracy are closely related: without elections to the institutions of political power, there is no democracy in the basic Western liberal understanding. What is meant by this is the recognition of rule, which, however, is controlled by the separation of powers, the validity of human rights and the opposition's chance to take power. The basic western liberal understanding is expressed in representative democracy. This form of democracy has developed over a centuries-long process as the appropriate order for the democratic constitutional state. Its basis is the competition theory of democracy. What is meant by this - in contrast to identity theory - is the recognition and legitimacy of different interests in a political community. The formation of political will and opinions takes place via the conflict-prone exchange of heterogeneous interests.

The prerequisite for this is that there are a minimum of common basic convictions in society. This includes the recognition of the majority principle as the basis for decision-making. The majority principle describes a legal principle according to which a minority - that is, those who are subject to a vote - has to submit to the decision of the majority. The free self-determination of individuals is restricted by this, but without the majority principle, decisions in a pluralistic society would not be possible. The losers are expected to respect and acknowledge this decision. The majority principle is also based on the right to vote, which requires recognition of political majorities. However, so that this does not turn into a tyranny of the majority who defy inalienable human rights, the majority principle must be supplemented by the protection of minorities.

As a party of the Danish minority, the South Schleswig Voters' Association (SSW) is exempt from the five percent clause in state elections in Schleswig-Holstein. SSW top candidate Anke Spoorendonk and her party leader Flemming Meyer at the start of the election campaign on March 31, 2012 in Schleswig. Photo: Bodo Marks (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)


The validity of the majority rule requires the observance of human rights. The principle of the protection of minorities prohibits smaller groups from being completely excluded from the formation of political will. According to the understanding of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany, majority decisions are only acceptable if the rights of the political minority are secured. But what? First of all, by guaranteeing equal opportunities to assert your opinion in political competition. Elections are suitable for this because they legitimize rule only for a limited time. No grouping governs automatically in the long run. Majority democratic elements are also broken by courts and power-sharing federalism. And in the end, the fundamental possibility that a new majority in parliament will change the resolutions of the old majority also serves to protect minorities.

Elections change the majority structure: After Prime Minister Hannelore Kraft (left), SPD, and her deputy Sylvia Löhrmann, Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen, had led a minority government for two years, their parties won a stable majority in new elections on May 13, 2012. On June 18, 2012 they present the coalition agreement. Photo: Federico Gambarini (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)


In elections it is not only the connection between the majority principle and the protection of minorities that is expressed. Because democracy is not only temporary rule but also rule with the consent of the people. This is not to be confused with rule by the people. Rule with the consent of the people - behind this is the idea of ​​representation. The electorate indirectly participates in the exercise of state rule through representatives. It regulates the democracy requirement in Article 20 of the Basic Law (GG). The people are the bearers of state authority. Popular sovereignty in this context means a form of rule or government legitimized by elections with constitutionally regulated periodic consent of the people. Popular sovereignty is not rule by the people or self-government, but rule with the consent of the people through elected representatives. The deputies are "representatives of the whole people" (Art. 38 GG). During their term of office, they are not bound by orders and instructions, as further stipulated in Article 38 of the Basic Law.

At this point one can rightly object that there are also more direct participation rights for those entitled to vote, which enable them to exert direct influence and thus to confront the idea of ​​representative democracy with that of direct democracy. In the Basic Law, which follows the representative understanding of democracy, a distinction has been made between elections and votes. Elections are the regular elections to the people's representative bodies, while the term voting includes plebiscites - referendums, referendums, plebiscites. Only in Article 29 of the Basic Law are there opportunities for forms of direct democracy, but limited to changes in the state borders between the federal states:
  • Referendum: Confirmation of legal measures for the restructuring of the federal territory by referendum (Art. 29, Para. 2 GG);

  • Referendum: Residents of certain areas can obtain the reorganization of their national affiliation by means of a referendum (Art. 29, Para. 4 GG);

  • Referendum: It is intended to determine whether the reorganization proposed by the law has the approval of those affected (Article 29, Paragraph 5 of the Basic Law).
Bavaria has long succumbed to the charm of direct democracy: There, referendums and referendums are an integral part of state politics. The referendum on the general smoking ban in Bavarian gastronomy in July 2010 caused heated discussions in advance. In the end, the "Bavaria takes a deep breath - yes to non-smoker protection" initiative was one step ahead. This means that smoking in Bavarian restaurants and beer tents is history. Photo: Tobias Hase (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)


On the other hand, there is more room in all state and local constitutions for further instruments of direct democracy. The direct participation process has enjoyed great popularity in the Federal Republic of Germany for several years. With these instruments of plebiscitary democracy and the exhaustion of representative forms, a panacea seems to have been found to counteract the unease in politics, parties and political institutions. The criticism of the concrete form of the complex and clumsy representative democracy is easy to understand and the enrichment of parliamentary democracy through further plebiscitary elements is certainly also useful. But immediate, direct democracy is often also democracy of concern: if possible without "annoying" politicians, parties, parliaments. More direct forms accelerate what often appears so laborious in political disputes: the argumentative negotiation of the decision in negotiation systems. What allegedly shortens the decision-making process, at the same time curtails important basic conditions of our understanding of democracy. The direct participation of citizens is an important and useful addition to indirect, representative democracy. However, the representative principle of democracy should not be undermined.

If democracy is based on the freedom to organize oneself politically through regular elections, then certain basic functions must be fulfilled, which are listed again in the following.

Basic functions and characteristics of democratic elections
  • Representation of the people: The elected, for example the MPs, represent the entirety of the citizens. The entire people is represented. Every social group must be able to take part in the political competition in order to guarantee the openness of the power competition. Representative democracies require majority decisions.

  • Legitimation and control of political rule: through elections, voters legitimize certain people to exercise political functions. This entitles them to make binding decisions on behalf of everyone and for everyone. By regularly repeating the election, it gains the function of power control. The opposition must always have the chance to come to power.

  • Integration of opinions: The election is the voting of each and every person entitled to vote. Overall, the election result reflects the electorate's articulation of will. The elections resulted in an integration of social pluralism and the formation of a politically active common will. The latter, however, also depends on the respective electoral system, which can promote or inhibit the integration of the electorate. A government capable of acting does not always emerge from the electoral process. The more strictly the political and social groups isolate themselves from one another, the less the functional conditions for integrating opinions can be achieved through elections.