Voter turnout at Germany's national election Sunday seems to be heading for a record low. According to Germany's Federal Returning Officer, only 36.1 percent of eligible voters -- not including those who had opted for postal votes -- had cast their ballots by 2 p.m., compared to the 41.9 percent who had cast their vote by the same time at the last election in 2005. Turnout by 2 p.m. was particularly low compared to 2005 in the states of Hesse, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Saxony.
At the 2005 election, which brought current Chancellor Angela Merkel to power, voter turnout was 77.7 percent. Observers are predicting that the turnout this time will be even lower, given the small percentage of voters who had gone to polling stations by 2 p.m.
However the weather could also play a role in the final turnout. Almost the whole of Germany was enjoying very warm and sunny weather Sunday, meaning it's possible that many voters may have chosen to go on excursions and will vote later in the day on their way home. Additionally, the number of postal votes was higher in many electoral districts this year than in 2005.
Candidates Cast their Votes
Turnout was predictably good among Germany's leading politicians, however. The top candidates of Germany's main political parties had all cast their votes by early afternoon. Angela Merkel, the leader of the center-right Christian Democratic Union, went to a polling station in Berlin's Mitte district around noon with her husband, Joachim Sauer. The chancellor was in good spirits and joked with the assembled photographers. Horst Seehofer, the leader of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, voted by absentee ballot.
The center-left Social Democratic Party's chancellor candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier voted on Sunday morning in Berlin's Zehlendorf district. He commented on the "wonderful voting weather" and said he hoped for a high turnout and a strengthening of democracy. Despite the most recent poll showing the SPD lagging eight points points behind the conservatives, Steinmeier expressed confidence about the outcome of the election, saying he was "quite sure" that "a strong SPD" would be leading the government -- this time as senior coalition partner. The SPD has been the junior partner in a "grand coalition" government with the CDU/CSU over the last four years.
Close Outcome Expected
The polls have been open since 8 clock on Sunday morning and will close at 6 p.m. Germany has around 62 million voters out of a population of over 82 million, including 3.5 million young people voting for the first time, who are casting their votes in 299 electoral districts. A total of 27 political parties and 3,556 candidates are competing for at least 598 seats in the lower house of the German parliament, the Bundestag.
Germans cast two votes in national elections. The "first" vote is for a particular candidate, while the "second" vote is for a political party. Only parties that achieve more than 5 percent of the national vote, or win at least three direct mandates under the "first" vote, are represented in the Bundestag.
Although Angela Merkel seems certain to win a second term as chancellor, it is unclear who the CDU/CSU's coalition partner will be. Support for a "black-yellow" coalition -- the name is inspired by the parties' official colors -- of the Christian Democrats and their preferred coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party, has dropped recently, according to opinion polls. If the CDU/CSU-FDP coalition does not have a majority of seats, then the only realistic alternative is a continuation of the current grand coalition with the SPD.
An obscure quirk of the German electoral system known as "overhang seats," whereby parties who do particularly well in the "first" vote for direct candidates can end up having more seats than they would have based strictly on their share of the "second" vote, could end up deciding the result. The CDU in particular is expected to benefit from overhang seats.