On Sunday, Germans will choose a new Parliament, which will ultimately determine who succeeds Chancellor Angela Merkel at the helm of the European Union’s most populous democracy. More than 60 million people are eligible to vote in this election.
Ms. Merkel gave Germany plenty of warning that she would not run in 2021. She made her plans clear in 2018, after leading the country through a migrant crisis in 2015 and 2016 and the eurozone meltdown in 2009.
Germany has changed under Ms. Merkel’s steady leadership — becoming an economic powerhouse, a home to more than a million migrants and a place where gay marriage is legal. Nearly 60 percent of voters are age 50 or older; younger voters have made their voices heard, mainly on the issue of climate change, but those under 39 make up less than 30 percent of the electorate.
The results of this election matter not only to Germany, but also to Europe and to the rest of the world. Ms. Merkel has been praised for her crisis management but criticized for lacking long-term vision. The next chancellor will have to steer Germany the rest of the way through the pandemic; shape its future relationships with the United States, Russia and China; figure out what to do about the country’s antiquated digital systems; and guide the country to the green future that it has promised its youth.
Ms. Merkel leaves as the longest-serving leader in the European Union, a power vacuum that President Emmanuel Macron of France may try to fill.
Most polling has put the Social Democrats, the junior partner in the German government ahead, but in the final days, the race has narrowed. The new government could take weeks or even months to emerge.
Sixty million people are eligible to vote in the German national election on Sunday. There won’t be a new government that night, or the next day — it could take the rival parties weeks or even months to settle on a coalition with a parliamentary majority. But the ballots are tallied quickly, and the new shape of Germany’s political landscape is likely to be visible within hours.
Here’s what Election Day will look like, and what to watch for.
8 a.m.: Polls opened. Candidates are not allowed to campaign on this day, but some may be seen casting ballots.
6 p.m. (noon Eastern): Polling stations close. Not long after, the first exit polls should be available. These polls can be within percentage points of the final result. But this year, because the race is tight, it could be a few more hours before a clear picture emerges. Mail-in ballots, which have been part of Germany’s voting system since 1957, are expected to play an outsized role given the pandemic, as they did in the U.S. presidential election. Only mail-in ballots received by 6 p.m. Sunday will be counted.
Around 6:15 p.m.: The first projections based on actual counted ballots will be released. These get updated throughout the evening until a fairly clear picture emerges of which party is winning.
8:15 p.m.: The heads of all the major parties meet to discuss successes and failures of their campaigns, and they will signal who they would be willing to work with in a coalition government. This discussion is called the “Elephant Round,” and it lasts an hour.
8 p.m. to midnight: Nearly all votes should be counted.
Early, early morning: The election authorities release something they call the official temporary results. These usually come between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. — though during the last national election, they didn’t arrive until 5:30 a.m.
It has been said that Germans are sometimes so organized that chaos reigns. Germany’s election system is no exception. It is so complex that even many Germans don’t understand it.
Here’s a brief primer.
Are voters choosing a chancellor today?
Not exactly. Unlike in the United States, voters don’t directly elect their head of government. Rather, they vote for representatives in Parliament, who will choose the next chancellor, but only after forming a government. More on that later.
The major parties declare who they would choose for chancellor, so Germans going to the polls today know who they are in effect voting for. This year the candidates most likely to become chancellor are Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats or Armin Laschet of the Christian Democrats. Annalena Baerbock, a Green, has an outside chance.
Who can vote?
Any German citizen 18 or over. They don’t need to register beforehand.
How are seats in Parliament allocated?
Everyone going to the polls today has two votes. The first vote is for a candidate their district’s local representative. The second vote is for a party. Voters can split their votes among parties and often do. For example, a person could cast their first vote for a Social Democrat as the local member of Parliament, and their second vote for the Christian Democrats as a party.
Parliament has 598 members, but could wind up with many more because of a quirk in the system. The top vote-getter in every district automatically gets a seat in Parliament. These candidates account for half of the members of Parliament. The remaining seats are allocated according to how many second votes each party receives.
But parties may be allocated additional seats according to a formula designed to ensure that every faction in Parliament has a delegation that accurately reflects its national support. So Parliament could easily wind up with 700 members.
Also: a party that polls less than 5 percent doesn’t get any seats at all.
What happens next?
It is very unlikely that any party will wind up with a majority in Parliament. The party that gets the most votes must then try to form a government by agreeing to a coalition with other parties. That has become mathematically more difficult because of the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany party and the far-left Linke party.
The mainstream parties have ruled out coalitions with either of those parties because of their extreme positions. But it will be a struggle for the remaining parties to find enough common ground to cobble together a majority. The process could take months.
BERLIN — German election officials are expecting mail-in ballots to break records in Sunday’s federal election. At least 40 percent and possibly a majority of ballots will arrive by mail, according to Georg Thiel, head of the agency in charge of counting the votes.
Although actual tallies will only be known after polls close, the authorities have seen requests for mail-in ballots grow this year as the pandemic fuels anxiety about crowded polling stations.
Mail-in balloting has been permitted in Germany for more than 60 years. When it was first allowed, in the 1957 election, only 5 percent of voters used the option; during the last federal election in 2017, 29 percent chose to mail in their choice. Vote counters are set up to handle a doubling of that number — nearly 60 percent — this year, Mr. Thiel said.
The postal service in Germany is one of the quickest and most reliable in the world, with letters usually delivered within a day to anywhere in the country. Still, an official warned voters last week that if they wanted their ballot to be counted, it should be in the mail by Thursday; only ballots received by 6 p.m. on Sunday — when polls close — will be tallied.
The populist Alternative for Germany party, segments of which have parroted former President Donald J. Trump’s claims of manipulated mail-in ballots in the U.S., has used slogans like “the mailbox is not a ballot box” to try to dissuade voters from using the option. But those concerns do not appear to have resonated with the electorate.