General, direct, free, equal and secret

A ball pen lies on a ballot paper.

a ballot paper (picture alliance / Winfried Rothermel)

Every schoolchild in Germany is taught that elections to the German Bundestag are general, direct, free, equal and secret. But what does that mean in practice?

A scene at a polling station: an assistant takes the identity card and poll card of a teenager with a punk hairstyle, nodding as he locates the name in the electoral register. An older man in a suit is standing in a polling booth, only his legs visible to those waiting outside; he marks a cross next to the name of one of the main parties. Having completed and folded her ballot paper, a nun casts it into the ballot box.

Article 38 of the Basic Law

Millions of similar scenes take place throughout Germany when Bundestag elections are held. As Article 38 of the Basic Law states: "Members of the German Bundestag shall be elected in general, direct, free, equal and secret elections."

These principles apply not only to elections at federal level, but also elections at Land and local level. Let's look at them in turn to discover exactly what each principle means in practice.

Unrestricted right to vote for Germans abroad

The election is considered to be 'general' because all citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany have the right to vote - regardless of gender, income, religion, profession or political beliefs. They must, however, be aged 18 or over on election day. Following a change in electoral law in March 2008, Germans living abroad have also had the right to vote, without time restrictions.

The election is 'direct' because the voters elect the Members of the Bundestag directly, without an intermediate body.

The election is 'free' because citizens may not be influenced or put under pressure regarding their decision on whom to support. They are meant to reach this decision freely and cast their vote accordingly.

Every vote is equal

The election is 'equal' because every vote carries the same weight. Or, as it is often put: one man - one vote.

The principle of equality is restricted in one sense, namely by what is known as the 'five per cent clause'. This stipulates that parties which receive less than five per cent of the vote in the election may not enter the Bundestag. This is intended to prevent party fragmentation, which proved fatal in the Weimar Republic.

Lost votes

At the same time, however, this means that the votes cast for these smaller parties do not count and are thus lost.

The election is 'secret' because measures are in place to ensure that voters can complete their ballot papers without anyone observing their choice. Voting takes place inside polling booths, which no one can see into from outside, and the ballot paper is folded before being placed into the ballot box. This means no one can see how anyone else has voted.

Contesting the result

Incidentally, anyone who is eligible to vote is entitled to contest the result of the election if one or more of these electoral principles appear to have been infringed. Complaints are submitted to the Bundestag, where the Committee for the Scrutiny of Elections examines the objection and carries out preparatory work for the Bundestag to take a decision. An appeal against this decision can be made to the Federal Constitutional Court.