Word of the Week: Überhangmandat

Sep 13, 2013

Every Friday, Germany.info and The Week in Germany highlight a different "Word of the Week" in the German language that may serve to surprise, delight or just plain perplex native English speakers.


© dpa Enlarge image (© dpa)

With the Bundestag election right around the corner, political terms largely conquer the realm of our Word of the Week section. Take, for instance, the word Überhangmandat: This term literally translates to “overhang mandate,” but is more commonly described as an “overhang seat” – a term that is not any less confusing in English.

No, this word does not physically describe a chair.

The two-vote system in Germany allows constituents to cast ballots both for a Bundestag representative from their district and for a political party. Überhangmandate – the plural form of the word – refer to the additional parliamentary seats that are established when the proportion of votes received by a German political party does not match the number of candidates directly elected in the electoral districts. This can happen if enough German constituents vote for a candidate and a political party that are not associated with one another.

© picture alliance Enlarge image (© picture alliance) If, for example, a party is entitled to eight seats in the 598-seat Bundestag but wins ten constituencies, it will be granted two overhang seats, thereby bringing the total number of seats in the Bundestag to 600.

But in some ways, overhang seats are treated differently because they are “personalized”. If a member of parliament with an Überhangmandat dies or gives up his position, the party permanently loses that seat. If this occurs with a “regular” member of the Bundestag, however, the party can replace that representative.

In the first few Bundestag elections after 1949, overhang seats were a rarity. But in recent years, they have had a major impact in parliament. In the 2005 election, there were 16 Überhangmandate, which were roughly divided by the two main parties, the CDU/CSU and the SPD. The 2009 election generated an unprecedented number of overhang seats, all 24 of which were won by the ruling party, the CDU/CSU union.

© dpa Enlarge image (© dpa) The record number of Überhangmandate granted in the 2009 election caused significant controversy, with some arguing that the extra seats disproportionality favored the ruling party. In 2012, Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled the electoral system unconstitutional because of the problems associated with too many overhang seats.

To address this, the Bundestag passed a law in February, creating Ausgleichsmandate (balance seats) for the federal election. These “balance seats” will ensure that each party receives the number of seats they are entitled to. If, for example, one party wins so many seats that it receives an unfair advantage, each of the other parties will receive Ausgleichsmandate to properly balance the Bundestag in accordance with the vote. If the Ausgleichsmandate had existed in 2009, there would have been 671 members of the Bundestag, rather than 620.

As a result, this year’s elected parliament could easily be larger than ever before.

© Germany.info

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