Notes as I learn more about the German political scene

Last week, I wrote a post about the BPB and WhoTargetsme, and since writing that, I’ve been lucky to enough to have a few very nice volunteers help make up a team of illustrators, data scientists and talented technical types) with me to go to this German Election themed hackday this Friday. In this post I’m sharing a few things that I’ve either learned, or felt are worth sharing to other interested folk.

How campaigning finance works differently in Germany

In Germany, there’s more state funding of political parties in the UK, and in some areas it feel more tightly regulated, but in some areas it if feels like the wild west. There’s a finite amount of airtime for election based advertising on TV, which is subsequently split among all the parties in a pre-determined manner, so you can’t just carpet bomb a TV channel with attack ads like in the US, and campaigning is barred up to a few days before the election.

However I couldn’t really find any meaningful regulation on the use of digital in Germany in this area.

In the UK, there’s a limit on what you can spend on digital on local campaigns, but there’s a loophole present in that national campaigns can target geographic areas with digital platforms like Facebook, so it’s possible outspend rival campaigns in a particular region quite easily.

Two main things stopping this happening in Germany at present seem to be:

a) Fewer people relying on Facebook for news – it’s associated with hate speech more, and Germany has the lowest percentage of people using it as their main source of news in Western Europe.

b) Inertia – Parties traditionally haven’t used Facebook before for targeted campaigning to the same extent that we have seen in the the UK and the US.

c) The more cordial tone of campaigning – campaigning is generally less adversarial in German politics. For example it’s fairly common to see German politicians from different parties agreeing with each other on issues in a way you wouldn’t see in the UK and the US.

How I think coalitions and PR affect politics over here

The last part above likely down to the system of governance over here, and wearrants some more explanation:

In the UK, we have a first part the post system in our elections – that is, if a MP wins in a given area, it’s as if they won all the votes in that area. This means it’s possible to have ‘landslide’ like swings in power in parliament, even when a comparatively small percentage of the population has changed how they vote. It also tends to favour two parties over a plurality, and this video from CGP grey explains for more entertainingly, than I ever could:


There’s another effect, but this doesn’t have the helpful animated explanation – because parties know that even if they win, they’re likely to be in coalition, it changes what tends to make into their manifestos.

Intra and interparty compromise

When forming a manifesto, there’s going to be some intra-party compromise where, various positions are argued over, and depending on whether they think they’ll be vote winners, are thrown out. A good example of this would be Jeremy Corbyn’s aversion to nukes – he’s been agains them for decades, and yet because it’s seen as a vote loser, the party voted to have funding Trident in the Labour manifesto in 2017.

Under a first past the post system, though – there is an assumption that if a party wins a majority in election, it’ll have so much power that it can ram through policy changes, without relying on the support of other parties, and won’t need to get bogged down in the horse trading we associated with coalition politics.

In coalition politics, because you have power being shared among a wider number of parties, often with radically different worldviews, to get any change, a number of inter-party need to be made, and it’s more likely that some policies will end up being jettisoned, in order to get the other parties onboard, to effect any kind of policy change.

This has the effect of allowing manifestos to be somewhat more radical, under the assumption that voters know that some of the more radical policies will by necessity be sacrificed to achieve some of the other goals the populace was voting for.

Put another way, if you know you aren’t going to ever be able to deliver all the policies in your manifesto, you are able to use more eye-catching policies as a way to differentiate your party from others. This isn’t something we’re used to in the UK, and we tend to take a very dim view of it. You only need to see how Liberal Democrats suffered under Nick Clegg effectively gave up a pledge on free higher education in 2008 in exchange to guaranteed look at electoral reform when going into coalition with the conservatives in the UK in 2008.

As someone growing up with UK politics, it’s not clear to me how voters work out what policies in a manifesto are likely to be sacrificed once the party is in power – my guess is that it’s based on some intuitive sense of how bonkers a part of a manifesto is, but I’d be grateful for a response in the comments.

By the way, if you’re interested in political use of technology in Germany, I’d recommend reading  @ToryDyke’s recent round up of the Berlin Digital/Politics scene.

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