Court finds Merkel election reforms unconstitutional


Germany’s highest court ruled yesterday that the country’s election law is unconstitutional, leaving it with no valid rules on how to distribute seats in the Bundestag lower house just over a year before the next general election.

The Karlsruhe-based constitutional court upheld a case brought by the opposition Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and more than 3,000 citizens against the law, which was altered by the chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right coalition last year.

Germany’s complex system, which can end up creating extra or “overhang” parliamentary seats that benefit bigger parties, breaches citizens’ rights to take part in direct, free and equal elections as enshrined in the constitution, the court said.

Dr Merkel’s government, preoccupied with trying to stem the euro zone debt crisis, now has to come up with a new law by autumn 2013, when the next federal election is due.

Government officials said they expected to have a law in effect by then and refused to speculate on what would happen if that were not the case.

In Germany, each voter can cast two ballots – one for a specific candidate in his or her constituency and the second for a particular party.

If a party wins more direct seats in a constituency than it would theoretically get according to the percentage of second votes, the Bundestag creates extra, or “overhang” seats. This system has over the years benefited the bigger parties, and most of all Dr Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU).

In 2009, the CDU and its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) won a total of 24 overhang seats.

Yesterday’s ruling, which follows a judgment in 2008 when the court said the system could give an advantage to bigger parties, makes clear that last year’s changes left a system that was still at odds with the constitution.

Whereas usually on such matters a cross-party consensus is reached, Dr Merkel’s government decided to go ahead with the changes despite objections from opposition parties.