Electoral reform in Germany and Canada

Lessons from the 2004 Canadian and the 2005 German election

Term Paper 2006 28 Pages

Politics - Political Systems - General and Comparisons


Table of Content

1 The 2005 German and 2004 Canadian election
1.1 Outcomes and characteristics
1.2 Lessons from both elections

2 Electoral systems: Canada and Germany
2.1 An overview of electoral systems
2.2 The German electoral system
2.2.1 Functionality and characteristics of the German system
2.2.2 Problems that arise from Germany’s mixed-member-proportional system
2.3 Canada’s single-member majority system
2.4 Functionality and characteristics of Canada’s “first-past-the-post”-system
2.5 The problems of Canada’s single-member plurality

3 The German model applied to Canada: how would Canada vote with a mixed-member-proportional system?

4 Should Canada adopt the German electoral system?

5 Bibliography

1 The 2005 German and 2004 Canadian election

1.1 Outcomes and characteristics

The voter turnout of 60.9% in the 2004 Canadian general election has been the lowest ever in Canadian electoral history. The election resulted in a minority government for Paul Martin’s Liberals that lost votes after an infamous sponsorship scandal. This scandal undermined Liberal credibility as “sums of money were paid illicitly, supposedly to promote national feeling in Quebec.”[1] The Liberals could only win 135 seats with 36.7% of the popular vote, and more than half of their seats (75) came from Ontario. The newly formed Conservatives won 99 districts with 29.6% of the popular vote; 45 of those seats came from their western basis in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba. The Bloc Quebecois won all its 54 seats in Quebec and became the third strongest party in the House of Commons. The New Democrats could increase their seats by 46.2%, leaving them with 19 seats and a total 15.7% of the popular vote.[2] As a result neither party won the majority of the seats in the House of Commons. A party must hold 155 seats to form a majority government. The combined seats count of the Liberals and the NDP was merely 154.

This resulted in a minority government of Paul Martin’s Liberals that still exists today. Canada’s regional cleavages, i.e. its highly regionalized nature, are the origin of such a development. The electoral system, the single-member plurality, deteriorates this situation as it favors parties with a regional basis and leaves out parties with a small nationwide electorate.

In contrast to Canada, German voters are familiar with elections where neither party can win the majority of seats in the German parliament, the Bundestag. The German electoral system favors coalitions, which is unknown to Canadian voters. The 2005 German election was held one year before its usual date which became necessary after an unsuccessful motion of confidence in Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on July 1. Schroeder triggered this federal election after his Social Democrats lost the important state election in North Rhine-Westphalia. In the aftermath of the 2005 election, the Social Democrats lost this election by 1%.[3] The German Conservatives, a combined union of the Christian Democratic Union and the Bavarian Christian Social Union, won the election with a total popular vote of 35.2% which was transformed into 226 of 614 total seats in the German parliament. The Social Democrats won 34.2% of the popular vote and 222 seats in the parliament. Both parties lost seats compared to 2002, as did the Greens – the former coalition partner of the Social Democrats in a so-called “red-green-coalition”.

The Free Democrats could increase their seats by 14 to 61 in total. The big winner of this election was the newly formed Left Party of a former Social Democrat leader. The Left Party won 54 seats in the German Parliament with a total of 8.7% of the popular vote.[4] The Conservatives usually prefer to govern with the Free Democrats which has not become possible as neither this coalition nor the former government coalition (Social Democrats and Green Party) could win the majority of seats. Therefore, both the Conservatives and Social Democrats had to form a Grand Coalition giving chancellorship to the Conservatives.

1.2 Lessons from both elections

The German electoral system appears to avoid regionalization in contrast to the Canadian one. But the federal election 2005 showed that a small country as Germany can be as regionalized as the second biggest country in the world. Germany’s East uses to vote for the Social Democrats and for the Left Party, a former party of the German Democratic Republic. “The Catholic south shows the opposite trend”[5] and belongs to the Conservatives, whereas the biggest state, a worker state called North Rhine-Westphalia with the industrialized Ruhr area, belongs to the Social Democrats[6]. Parties such as the Left Party (East Germany) or the Christian Social Union (Bavaria in the South) only campaign in those states where they are sure to win districts. However, the German electoral system, the mixed member proportional system (mmps), slightly alleviates the regionalization of its states as it transfers votes proportionally into seats.

In contrast, Canada’s regional fragmentation is closely mirrored by the distribution of seats in the House of Commons. The Liberals obtain most of their seats from their liberal basis in Ontario, the New Democrats can rely on their voters in Manitoba, the Bloc Quebecois only campaigns in Quebec and the Conservatives have a strong western basis and no representation east of Manitoba. In such a regionalized political culture it is difficult to win the majority of seats as it was shown in 2004. But even in Germany regionalization makes it difficult for parties to form majority governments.

As by now five parties have sent representatives to the Bundestag and the three minor parties could win almost the same number of seats as the CDU/CSU or the Social Democrats.

The proportional element in Germany’s electoral systems ensures the survival of the three minor parties that could not win any single-member district (except for the Left Party that could win three districts).[7]

The lessons we can learn from both elections are that electoral systems mirror the political culture in both countries. Both countries are regionally fragmented which makes it difficult to form majority governments. The need for coalition governments in Germany that is derived from its electoral system sometimes uses to produce an electoral outcome that makes it difficult to form a majority government. This could be seen in the 2005 German election as a Grand Coalition was aimed by both the Conservatives and the Social Democrats after an unsatisfying performance during the election campaign. Only a Grand Coalition would have the majority of seats in the German parliament, apart from several possible three-party-coalitions that have not been desirable. But the difficulties that arised during the political bargaining between both parties led to resigning of two very important party leaders: Edmund Stoiber, Bavarian prime minister and leader of the CSU, and Franz Müntefering, chairman and leader of the Social Democrats, resigned from the upcoming cabinet of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Both Müntefering and Stoiber would have been given important departments to. Müntefering would have become employment minister and Stoiber would have taken over the department of finance[8] – both positions are considered the most important in a German government. Müntefering, however, changed his mind in the last days before setting up the administration and has taken over the department of employment and the position as vice chancellor.

This shows that the struggle for establishing a functioning government in Germany does not only take a lot of time but does also often ends up in struggles within the parties. There is a spill-over effect from coalition-forming to party politics that could have negative effects on politicians that try to form a government against the will of their caucuses. Such spill-over effects cannot be expected in Canada as there is no culture of coalition but one of minority governments instead.

The 2004 Canadian election saw a “further decline in the voting participation”[9], as did the German election. Both countries had to face political and economical difficulties and the insufficient performances of politicians of both countries during past legislatures and the election campaigns made many voters turn away from the governing parties (Liberals and Social Democrats/Greens).

Canadian political scientists argue not only since the 2004 Canadian elections that Canada’s electoral system produces an unfair representation being “overly generous to the party that wins a plurality of the vote (…) rewarding it with a legislative majority that is disproportionate to its share of the vote.”[10] The system produces an “artificially swollen legislative majority”[11] and promotes parties with a strong regional stronghold.

The “ratio of political parties’ share of House of Commons seats to popular vote”[12] in 1993 was 1.45 for the Liberals and only 0.04 for the Progressive Conservatives. This means that only 0.04% of the PC’s popular vote has been transformed into seats. In contrast the distribution of the seats in the German Bundestag closely mirrors the overall votes received by each party in the 2005 federal election.

2 Electoral systems: Canada and Germany

The question that arises is whether or not a different electoral system in Canada can lower the effects of its highly regionalized nature and make Canada’s legislature more democratic. In the following sections I will give an overview of electoral systems and explore both the Canadian and German one. Finally I will apply the German Mixed Member Proportional System to the Canadian general election 2004 to show the outcome of a different electoral system. The question that finally has to be answered is whether or not the German electoral system can help Canada overcome its parliamentary fragmentation and underrepresentation of several regions and whether or not it is reasonable to adopt the German electoral system.

2.1 An overview of electoral systems

Elections “play a central role in modern democracy, the particular formula employed to translate votes into seats in the legislature assumes special importance.”[13] This could be seen in both elections as shown above where two different formulas have been used to translate seats into votes. According to psephologist Douglas W. Rae, electoral systems consist of rules that “govern the process by which electoral preferences are articulated as votes and by which these votes are translated into distributions of governmental authority (typically parliamentary seats) among the competing political parties.”[14]

By classifying electoral systems based on their proportionality, there are “roughly nine types of electoral systems, which in turn can be grouped into three broad families”[15]: (1) Plurality-Majority, (2) Semi-PR, and (3) Proportional Representation. Plurality-Majority electoral systems are usually used in Great Britain, the United States, Australia and Canada. There is no proportionality element present. The winning candidate of each district obtains a seat in the parliament. Plurality-Majority systems can be subdivided into four subsystems; one of these is Canada’s First-past-the-post system (FPTP) that is also known as the single-member plurality system. Further systems are Alternative Vote, Block Vote or Two-round system[16]. The latter differs from Canada’s FPTP in the percentage necessary for winning a district. While FPTP gives seats to the winning candidate, Two-round systems require a majority of the vote (50+1) which sometimes makes two electoral rounds necessary. Block Vote systems are used for multi-member constituencies. “Voters can cast as many votes as there are candidates”[17] and the candidates with the most votes will obtain seats. Voters can rank order candidates in Alternative Vote systems. If no candidate receives a majority of votes the “lowest ranked candidate is dropped and his or her second preferences are then re-distributed among the remaining candidates.”[18] Winning candidates will always have a majority of the votes.

Proportional Representation systems include three types of systems: List-PR, Single Transferable Vote and Mixed Member Proportional. List-PR means that each party presents a list of candidates, voters can only vote for one party list and parties “receive seats in proportion to their overall share of the national vote.”[19] The Single Transferable Vote system employs the alternative vote in multi-member districts. Voter can rank order candidates which means that they can vote for one candidate only or rank as many candidates as can be elected in the riding. This system requires a “quota” that needs to be established. Any “candidate who wins more votes than this quota is declared elected.”[20] The votes in excess of this quota are redistributed to second preferences of the voters who voted for the already elected candidate. This electoral system is labeled to be “the most sophisticated of all electoral systems, allowing for choice between parties and between candidates within parties.”[21] I will explain the remaining of the proportional electoral systems, the Mixed Member Proportional System (MMPS), in section 2.1.


[1] Chris Dornan and John Pammett, The Canadian General Election of 2004 (Toronto: Tonawanda, c2004), 14.

[2] Ibid., 362.

[3] German Federal Election Officer, Results of the 2005 German election (in English)

[http://www.bundeswahlleiter.de/bundestagswahl2005/presse_en/pd391211.html] (20 October 2005).

[4] ibid.

[5] Deutsche Welle, Germany’s divided political landscape [http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,1564,1717259,00.html] (13 October 2005).

[6] ARD, ‘Electoral Map of Germany’ [http://stat.tagesschau.de/wahlarchiv/wid246/karte0.shtml] (25 October 2005).

[7] ibid.

[8] BBC News UK, Bavarian leader to quit cabinet [http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk/mpapps/pagetools/print/news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/4395850.stm] (2 November 2005).

[9] Pammett, 26.

[10] Law Commission of Canada, Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada (Ottawa: Law Commission of Canada, 2004), 8.

[11] Ibid., 9.

[12] Brian Tanguay, Canadian Parties in Transition (Toronto: Albany, 1996), 284.

[13] Law Commission of Canada, Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada, 1.

[14] Douglas W. Rae, The political consequences of electoral laws (Yale University Press, Rev. ed edition, 1971), 14.

[15] Law Commission of Canada, Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada, 19.

[16] ibid., 21.

[17] ibid., 21.

[18] ibid., 21.

[19] ibid., 22.

[20] ibid., 22.

[21] ibid., 22.


ISBN (eBook)
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Saint Mary's University – Saint Mary's University, Halifax, Canada
Electoral Germany Canada



Title: Electoral reform in Germany and Canada