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Bloated Bundestag: Trouble for German democracy?

  • September 15, 2021

Germany’s lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, has a whopping 709 seats. This makes it the second-largest legislative body in the world. That number could balloon to well over 900 after Germany’s federal elections on September 26.

The problem this poses is greater than a crunch to fit that many chairs in the chamber. How can compromises be made, and how can backbenchers be heard, in a parliament so unwieldy?

Why is the Bundestag so big?

When Germans vote for their federal government, they vote not just directly for their local member of parliament. The so-called “second vote” counts for a political party and its list of candidates. This is meant to combine the principles of majority rule and proportional representation.

The system was conceived in postwar Germany as a compromise with smaller parties, who worried they would consistently fail to win seats, along with assuaging concerns about instability that had come with political fragmentation before the war.

As it stands now, Germany has 299 electoral districts. This means that the Bundestag should in theory have 598 seats.

But if a party wins more seats than it’s entitled to, based on the share of second vote results, they are allowed to keep them. These are called “overhang” seats. To make up for this, overall other parties also get more seats, to ensure that the relative proportion of parties in the Bundestag reflects the election result. 

In the last federal election in September 2017, that resulted in a total of 111 extra seats. 

What led to the dramatic increase?

“This worked well when Germany had two big parties; that is, two parties that received the vast majority of votes,” explained constitutional law professor Sophie Schönberger, referring to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), which could be characterized as a rival at some times and partner at others.

For decades after World War II, either the SPD or the CDU easily captured a majority of the overall vote, as well as most of the direct mandates in the constituencies.

But with an ascendant Green Party, as well as the small-but-resilient socialist Left Party — not to mention the pro-free market Free Democrats (FDP) and the populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) — the electoral map isn’t as two-tone as it was before.

Instead of two big parties, “we have three medium-sized ones and a smattering of a few others,” Schönberger said, with the Greens as number three.

“This creates a vicious circle, in which there have to be more and more lawmakers from each party in order to maintain the balance of power,” said comparative politics researcher Klaus Stüwe, pointing out that a 2012 ruling from Germany’s top court stipulated that the number of overhang seats could not be capped.

Things have become even more complicated, he explained, as people may use their first vote not for the candidate of the party they prefer, but for one who they assume has a chance of getting past the rival they do not. “In the last 30 years, more people are splitting their ticket,” Stüwe observes. 

  • German election 2021: Governing coalition options

    Deciphering the color code

    The center-right Christian Democrat CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU are symbolized by the color black. The center-left Social Democrat SPD is red, as is the communist Left Party. The pro-free market Free Democrats’ (FDP) color is yellow. And the Greens are self-explanatory. German media refer to the color combinations and national flags using them as shorthand for political combinations.

  • German election 2021: Governing coalition options

    Black, red, green — the Kenya coalition

    A combination of center-right Christian Democrats and center-left Social Democrats has been in power for eight years. What was termed a “grand coalition” of two big tent parties will probably no longer have a majority. Taking in the Green Party would secure a comfortable majority. But with the SPD and CDU running neck-and-neck it’s not clear which party will be strongest — and name the chancellor.

  • German election 2021: Governing coalition options

    Black, yellow and green — the Jamaica coalition

    The center-right Christian Democrats have often teamed up with the much smaller pro-free market Free Democrats (FDP) at the state and the national level over the years. Taking in the Greens to form a three-way coalition would be an option attractive to many in the CDU. But the Greens and the FDP do not make easy bedfellows, so a similar attempt failed after the last election in 2017.

  • German election 2021: Governing coalition options

    Black, red, yellow — the Germany coalition

    The center-right CDU and the center-left SPD plus the pro-free market FDP. This combination would easily clear the 50% threshhold in parliament. It would be the preferred option for business leaders and high income earners. But if the SPD remains ahead of the conservatives, the order would be flipped, putting the SPD in the lead so we’d see red, black, yellow. A very different ballgame.

  • German election 2021: Governing coalition options

    Red, red, green

    The Social Democrats teaming up with the Greens and the Left Party is a specter the conservatives like to raise when they perform badly in the polls. Such a combination might just about clinch 50% — if the Left Party manages to clear the 5% hurdle to get into parliament. But the SPD and Left Party have a difficult history. And the Left’s extreme foreign policy positions would hamper negotiations.

  • German election 2021: Governing coalition options

    Red ,yellow, green — a ‘traffic light’ coalition

    The free-market-oriented liberal FDP, has in the past generally ruled out federal coalitions sandwiched between the Social Democrats, and the Greens. But this year the FDP is not ruling out any options. Germany’s traditional kingmaker party is above all keen to return to power — no matter in which color combination.

    Author: Rina Goldenberg

What’s the problem with having a big Bundestag?

Considering it is “not unlikely” that the Bundestag get bigger than it has ever been after September’s vote, Schönberger expects this to translate into problems for German democracy.

“There is the issue of the increasing impossibility of ensuring healthy and concise debate, as well as the problem of whether ‘backbenchers’ will ever get a chance to speak,” Schönberger said. “And there is the question of the cost of paying the salaries of so many lawmakers,” she added.

Members of the Bundestag earn a little more than €10,000 ($11,800) per month before taxes, and in addition are given tax-free spending money of €4,560 per month. They also receive €12,000 to outfit their office.

Each lawmaker employs staff while in office, and receives a generous pension when they retire. An ever-expanding Bundestag, therefore, means an ever-expanding burden on taxpayers.

“It was a good idea, trying to combine the best of both worlds,” Stüwe said. “But now, our electoral system has become so complex that people don’t even understand it anymore.”

What reform efforts have been made?

In recent years, the FDP, Greens, and Left Party have forged an alliance to lobby for a significant decrease in the number of districts.

“That wouldn’t fix everything, but it would help,” Schönberger said.

Stüwe agreed that a reduction in the number of districts is the only “viable” solution, but added that the CDU’S Bavarian sister party, the CSU, has put up strong resistance to a drastic reduction. This is because it benefits the most from the current setup, as it wins most constituencies in Bavaria, Germany’s second-largest state by population.

The grand coalition of the SPD and CDU that is currently in power agreed to a slight cutback in constituencies to 280 — which may be implemented for the next federal elections in 2025.

  • Germany’s colorful coalition shorthand

    Black-red coalition

    Conservative black combined with transformative red is the color code when the Christian Democrats govern in a grand coalition with the Social Democrats. This ‘grand coalition’ government has been in power for the past eight years under Chancellor Angela Merkel.

  • Germany’s colorful coalition shorthand

    ‘Pizza Connection’

    When Bonn was still Germany’s capital, individual conservatives and Greens met from 1995 in its suburban Italian Sassella restaurant. Since then, the ‘Pizza Connection’ has become code for speculation over further links. At regional level, Baden-Württemburg’s Greens-CDU coalition has governed since 2016.

  • Germany’s colorful coalition shorthand

    ‘Jamaica’ option – black, yellow and green

    A three-way deal between the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats, whose color is yellow did not come about at national level in 2017 after the FDP called off talks. It has been tested at a state level, however, where Schleswig-Holstein currently has a “Jamaica” government.

  • Germany’s colorful coalition shorthand

    Black, red, green, symbolized by Kenya’s flag

    So far, a ‘Kenyan’ coalition has only emerged at the regional state level in the East, in response to a rise of the far-right AfD taking a quarter of the votes. Brandenburg and Saxony have had such a coalition government since 2019.

  • Germany’s colorful coalition shorthand

    ‘Traffic light’ coalition

    The free-market-oriented liberal FDP, whose color is yellow, has in the past generally ruled out federal coalitions sandwiched between the Social Democrats, whose color is red, and the Greens. But a current example is Rhineland Palatinate’s three-way regional state coalition based in Mainz and headed by Social Democrat Malu Dreyer.

    Author: Ian P. Johnson

While you’re here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

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