LONDON — U.S. elections are fascinating — often in a strange way — to many Europeans. They sometimes (secretly) admire the raucous politicking and grass roots passions, but also scratch their heads over the seemingly endless campaigns, the primaries and the singular rules of the Electoral College.
Here's a roundup of similarities and differences between voting in the United States and in France, Germany and Britain.
France: A nod toward the primaries
Like in various other European nations (including Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia), the French have to go to the polls twice to elect their president. Whereas all parties can present their own candidates, a second polling date will be decisive. In the second round, only the two highest-performing candidates will be on the ballot paper.
Usually, the two remaining candidates belong to the Republicans and the Socialist Party. During next year's general elections, however, there is a high likelihood that voters will have to choose between a mainstream candidate and right-wing politician Marine Le Pen, who represents the National Front party.
Presidential elections in France would probably deserve their own explanatory post. One recently introduced key feature is worth pointing out, though: Both parties now hold public primaries, burying a previous candidate-selection process which was frequently criticized as intransparent.
The introduction of primary debates, aired on national French television, has not gone without criticism.
Some allege that intraparty debates could hurt the two mainstream parties and benefit the right-wing National Front, because they would most likely leave the “surviving” candidates' deeply damaged. French observers have pointed at the recent U.S. campaign to make their arguments.
“Primaries are a sign of our political parties’ weaknesses,” Rémi Lefebvre, a political-science professor at Lille University in northern France, was quoted as saying by Politico.
Britain: The queen still plays a role
The British frequently discuss whether the royal family should still exist in the 21st century. Following elections, however, the monarch's role is an integral part of the process.
British voters cast their ballot for their favored parliament candidate. Depending on what party is able to get most seats in parliament, the monarch appoints that party's candidate as prime minister. Britain's electoral system favors major parties over smaller ones, such as the right-wing U.K. Independence Party.
As in the United States, online voting does not exist in Britain — so, either you show up yourself, select a “proxy” who votes for you, or you rely on postal vote.
British citizens living in Northern Ireland, however, need to give a reason why they want to use postal voting. The idea behind that restriction is to limit its use, as observers and government representatives have in the past expressed concerns over voter fraud in the postal process in Northern Ireland.
Germany: A rather unexciting election procedure
Almost two decades ago, the German government decided voting procedures should be modernized. Back then, computers seemed like the perfect choice to replace ballot papers. German courts, meanwhile, were less convinced and have since stopped efforts to introduce online-voting or computers at official polling places.
Although Germany has a president, the main political power is with the chancellor's office. Current Chancellor Angela Merkel is the head of the German government and makes all relevant decisions, whereas the German president (currently Joachim Gauck) primarily fulfills ceremonial functions and signs laws.
Following general elections, it can be unknown for days who the next chancellor will be. Like in many European nations, Germany's political system relies on coalition building. The parliament deputies of that government coalition then elects the chancellor.
General election campaigns leading up to that announcement in Germany have been described as rather dull. The campaigns are usually less aggressive than in other countries, and far less emotional than those in the United States.
The most relevant event during the campaigning is a TV debate between the leading candidates for the chancellor's office.
Television election coverage does not have the same impact as it does in the United States, though. Germany is a country with a multitude of magazines and local as well as national newspapers which significantly influence what voters think of the candidates. Former Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, for instance, once said his decision to give interviews to local newspapers rather than national TV networks helped him win the elections.
His successor, Angela Merkel, prefers consensus building and often refrains from directly and aggressively debating her contenders.