Germany passes law to shrink its XXL Parliament – ​​DW – 17/03/2023

After a fiery debate, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s centre-left coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) used its majority to pass a bill to reduce the size of the lower house, the Bundestag. bring it to 630 400 legislators voted in favour, 261 against and 23 abstained.

Before the vote, Sebastian Hartmann (SPD) climbed the pulpit to explain once again that the goal is “a simple, understandable electoral law”.

The German Federal Parliament has attracted international attention because, with its 736 members, it has grown larger than any other parliament. Only China’s National People’s Congress and the United Kingdom’s House of Lords are larger, but neither is democratically elected.

A large majority of Germans say parliament is too big – and too expensive: the federal budget for 2023 earmarked about €1.4 billion ($1.52 billion), including all associated costs, for the Bundestag.

The German opposition, which had benefited from the current electoral system, has now revolted and is going to the Constitutional Court.

No more ‘overhang’ or ‘balance’ seats

The German electoral system is complicated. Voters cast two votes in federal elections: one for a delegate to represent their constituency and one for their favored party. The seats in the Bundestag are filled with directly elected legislators and others drawn from lists according to the share of the vote the parties receive nationally.

All this remains unchanged.

But until now, every directly elected representative was entitled to a seat in parliament. Under the reformed law, this will no longer be the case.

From the next general election in 2025, only the share of the national vote counts. And if a party wins more constituencies than it deserves according to the national vote, some of those directly elected candidates will not get a seat in parliament.

Until now, when a party won more constituencies than the number of seats it was entitled to according to the share of their national vote, the directly elected representatives would still get a seat in parliament, leading to so-called “overhang seats” ( Überhangmandate ).

“Balance seats” (Ausgleichsmandate) were then awarded to the other parties to ensure that they all received the number of seats determined by the party vote. In the most recent Bundestag elections in 2021, this resulted in a total of 138 extra seats.

This was not a problem as long as the two main parties, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), were strong. But for decades their voter base has dwindled and more and smaller parties have entered parliament, making the system messy.

With 709 seats, the previous Bundestag was already one of the largest in the world before 2021

Left Party and CSU are afraid of losing

The ruling coalition’s new law also abolishes another clause, the “Grundmandatsklausel”: it allowed a party that won at least three constituencies (“direct mandates”) to enter the Bundestag even if they passed the threshold of 5 % would fail to enter parliament.

This abolition was a last-minute decision and caused a storm of criticism.

The Left Party took advantage of this clause in the 2021 elections. The party only obtained 4.9% of the vote at the time, but as three of its candidates won their respective constituencies, the 5% threshold was crossed and the party gained 39 seats .

The 5% threshold was introduced to ensure that too many small parties did not enter the Bundestag, something that led to the fragmentation of parliament and ultimately enabled the rise of the Nazis in the Weimar Republic. The only exception in today’s Bundestag is the SouthSchleswig Voter Association (SSW) minority party of the Danish and Frisian minority in the far north of the country. It is exempt from meeting the threshold to ensure minority representation and is currently represented by a single legislature.

But not only the Left Party is strongly opposed to the abolition of the “Grundmandatsklausel”.

The center-right Christian Social Union (CSU), which only competes in the state of Bavaria, has taken advantage of the current electoral system and fears it could lose representation entirely if it falls from its 2021 result of 5.2% to less than 5% drops.

With the new system, the party must fear for its representation in the future: if it falls below 5% of the vote across the country (in the last election it won 5.1% of the vote), it would no longer be represented are in the Bundestag. not at all. Even if the candidates came first in most of the Bavarian constituencies.

Speaking ahead of the Bundestag vote, Alexander Dobrindt, head of the Bundestag group of CSU parliamentarians, accused the ruling parties of manipulation and disrespect.

How do the German elections work?

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Constitutional Court decides

For more than a decade there have been attempts to shrink parliament, but they have all failed. “All parties recognize the need for downsizing, but at the same time they are very careful not to be disadvantaged if a reform comes along,” Klaus Stüwe, chair of comparative politics at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, told DW.

At the end of Friday’s parliamentary session, opposition leader Friedrich Merz (SPD) stressed that his party is in favor of shrinking the Bundestag. He pointed to his party’s alternative proposal and called for further negotiations.

Whether the centre-left coalition’s reform law will permanently change Germany’s electoral law will ultimately be decided by the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe.

This article was originally written in German. It was first published on January 20, 2023 and later updated to reflect recent developments.

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