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EXPLAINED: Who can vote in German elections

2021 is set to be a hugely important year for German politics, but who will be given a say on the government to replace Merkel's? We take a look at who's eligible to vote this year.

EXPLAINED: Who can vote in German elections
Voters take to the polls in Saxony-Anhalt to pick their new parliament on June 6th, 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Matthias Bein

If you’ve been in Germany a while, you may have learned a little bit about the country’s electoral system and may have even gone to the polls to pick your town mayor or council representatives.

For many people, however, navigating all the different types of Wahl (election) can feel like a bit of a headache – not least because of Germany’s federal system and numerous levels of government, from the European Union down to local administrators.

If you’d like to put your ballot where your mouth is and get involved in German politics, there’s no better year than a the ‘super election year’ of 2021 to do it. Before you start poring over each of the parties’ manifestos, though, you’ll need to know the basics of the country’s political system.

READ ALSO: These are the dates you need to know for Germany’s ‘super election year’

Here’s a rundown of the different types of elections and – most importantly – who’s able to vote in them.

What types of elections are there in Germany?

  • In the parliamentary Election, or Bundestagswahl, the members of the federal parliament who will serve for the next four years are elected. These MPs then elect the chancellor via a secret ballot. Usually, the candidate for chancellor is agreed upon by the largest parties in parliament – most recently the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
  • In a state election, or Landtagswahl, the state parliaments for each of Germany’s 16 states are elected. In 15 of these states, elections take place every five years, though the city state of Bremen has opted to instead hold elections every four years. Since these elections are organised on a state level, there’s no countrywide ‘Landtagswahl’ date or month. Instead, you can expect the state you live in to organise their vote on a different month or year from most other states.
  • The municipal elections, or Kommunalwahl, are used to elect town councils and local councils, mayors and other administrators for the local district.
  • The European elections, or Europawahl, take place every five years. They are used to elect representatives for the European Parliament.

Who can vote in each type of election?

In the parliamentary and state elections, only German citizens are allowed to vote.

In the local elections, both German and EU citizens can vote – but only if they’ve lived in Germany for at least three months. As you might expect, all EU citizens can vote in the European elections.

What’s the minimum voting age in Germany?

Nationally, the minimum voting age is 18, so only German citizens aged 18 and over are allowed to take part in the federal parliamentary elections. The same applies in most areas for the state elections though Brandenburg, Schleswig-Holstein, Bremen and Hamburg allow over-16s to vote, as long as they are German passport-holders.


A vote is placed in a state election. In Brandenburg, Schleswig-Holstein, Bremen and Hamburg, anyone over the age of 16 can vote for their regional parliament. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jan Woitas

Once again, the voting age varies when it comes to municipal or local elections, though in general, any EU citizen over the age of 16 can vote. Saxony, Saarland, Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse and Bavaria are the exceptions to this rule: in those states, only over-18s have a say in picking the next council or local mayor.

Over-18s are allowed to vote in European elections.

Why is 2021 such a major year for German politics?

You may have heard 2021 described as a ‘super election year’ in Germany. That’s because, as well as the crucial parliamentary elections on September 26th, a number of state elections are taking place this year as well.

So far, Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt have elected their state parliaments, with Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Berlin and Thuringia all going to the polls on the same date as the general elections.

This year is also a particularly decisive year for politics because long-standing Chancellor Angela Merkel will be retiring in autumn, meaning that Germany will be getting a new chancellor at the helm for the first time in 16 years.

READ ALSO:

For Brits in Germany, September will mark the first parliamentary election since the UK left the European Union on February 1st, 2020. Tens of thousands of Brits opted to secure a German passport before the country left both the European Union and the European Economic Area (EEA), so this new cohort will be taking part in the German Bundestagswahl and Landtagswahlen in their home states for the very first time.

READ ALSO: How Brexit pushed thousands of Brits to get German citizenship

Vocabulary

Chancellor candidate – (der/die) Kanzlerkandidat(in)

Electorate – (die) Wählerschaft / Wähler

Eligible to vote – wahlberechtigt

Super election year – (das) Superwahljahr

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CITIZENSHIP

German parliament to hold urgent debate on citizenship

Politicians will gather in the Bundestag on Thursday afternoon for an urgent session on Germany's planned changes to citizenship law.

German parliament to hold urgent debate on citizenship

According to information on the Bundestag website, the urgent discussion was scheduled on the request of the opposition CDU party, who have been fiercely critical of the planned reforms in recent days.

The debate, which is scheduled to start at 2:50pm and last an hour, will see MPs air their views on the government’s planned changes to citizenship law.

Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) is currently in the process of drafting a bill that will simplify and speed up the naturalisation process in Germany, which she said this week is “as good as done”.  

The law will end a ban on dual nationality for non-EU citizens, meaning people from places like India, the USA and the UK can naturalise as Germans without losing their current citizenship – or citizenships. 

It also foresees a dramatic reduction in the amount of time it takes to become eligible for German citizenship.

In future, people would be able to naturalise after five years of residence in the country rather than the current eight, while people who speak good German or fulfil other integration criteria could naturalise after three years rather than six.

Additionally, the Interior Ministry wants to grant automatic German citizenship to the children of foreign parents – provided their parents have been in the country at least five years – and remove language requirements for members of the guest-worker generation who want to become German. 

READ ALSO:

‘We don’t need reform’

High-profile politicians from the CDU have slammed the government’s plans to ease citizenship rules, with parliamentary leader Thorsten Frei describing the move as an attempt to “sell-off” German passports as a “junk commodity”.

“We don’t need reform,” Frei told public broadcaster ZDF. “There would no majority whatsoever in any party’s supporters for this change.”

Earlier this week, CDU leader Friedrich Merz had argued that expediting the naturalisation process would damage integration and allow people to immigrate into the benefits system more easily. 

“The CDU will not close its mind to a further modernisation of immigration law and the citizenship law of the Federal Republic of Germany,” Merz told a meeting of CDU and CSU MPs in Berlin on Tuesday.

“However, we also attach importance to the fact that the granting of citizenship takes place at the end of an integration process and not at the beginning of it.” 

The CDU and CSU have previously been vocal opponents of permitting dual nationality, arguing that holding more than one citizenship would prevent people from fully integrating into German life. 

Nevertheless, it remains unclear if the opposition will be able to block the legislation in any meaningful way.

If there aren’t any substantial changes to the core of the citizenship bill when the amendments are made, the Interior Ministry believes it won’t need to be put to a vote in the Bundesrat – the upper house where the CDU and CSU hold a majority.

Instead, the parties of the traffic-light coalition – the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) – would simply be able to vote it through in the Bundestag. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Could Germany’s conservatives block dual citizenship?

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