Germany wants to reduce the size of its Bundestag XXL | International
The Bundestag is going to burst at the seams. The lower house of the German Parliament has never had so many members: 736 deputies, who with their 736 seats have forced this legislature to physically expand the chamber by installing new rows of blue seats. They almost reach the end of the room, a few meters from the exit doors. There has been a consensus for years that the uncontrolled growth of the Bundestag makes it increasingly difficult to manage, not to mention the cost it entails for public coffers. But attempts to halt its growth never prospered. Now, the center-left coalition led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz - Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals - has decided to try it with a bill to change the devilish German electoral system.
It will not be easy. Judging by the first reactions of the Christian Democratic opposition, the reform is on its way to becoming the next big political battle. "The proposal is unacceptable," said the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Friedrich Merz, after learning the content of the draft. Conservatives have traditionally benefited most from the current system, so they have little incentive to open up to reform. But Parliament cannot indefinitely maintain its XXL size, all parties agree.
The Bundestag has become a rarity on the international scene, because it is the largest democratically elected parliament in the world. It is only surpassed by the Chinese (the National People's Assembly, with around 3,000 deputies) and the British House of Lords (788 members, who are not voted on). Unlike most chambers, the German does not have a fixed number of seats. The seats vary each legislature due to a very complicated system that is characterized by the so-called additional and compensation seats.
In federal elections, which are held every four years, Germans vote twice. In the first (erststimme) they choose the preferred candidate in their constituency, with name and surname; in the second (zweitstimme) tick the box for a political party. It is very common that they do not coincide. In the end, they are represented in the Bundestag by both directly elected deputies (direct mandate) and those chosen by each formation to integrate their electoral lists. The candidates with the most votes in each of the 299 constituencies in Germany always have a seat. Another 299 come from the closed lists that are presented for each country (Land).
But it is the second vote that determines the relative size of each party in the Bundestag. And here the additional seats come into play. If a formation obtains more direct mandates than the seats that would correspond to it according to the proportion of the second vote, the system assigns extra deputies to them. In turn, as the electoral law guarantees the strict proportionality of the seats, the rest of the parties are assigned more seats to rebalance the forces.
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The system worked perfectly from its introduction in 1949 until the 1980s, explains Florian Grotz, an expert in political systems at Hamburg's Helmut Schmidt University, because the vote was highly concentrated. There were two major parties (Social Democrats and Christian Democrats) and one hinge, the Liberals. But the slow decay of the ancients Volksparteien (mass parties) and the appearance of new formations have changed the electoral landscape. The increasingly pronounced fragmentation of the vote has meant that a Parliament that in theory should have 598 seats has been getting fatter because of the additional seats up to 736 in this legislature.
“For decades it was a very good system, so until relatively recently nobody had much interest in touching it,” Grotz explains by phone. Some small modifications have been made, which have not prevented the expansion of a Parliament that, as the expert emphasizes, "has no upper limit and theoretically could grow indefinitely." Before the last elections, in September 2021, some analysts believed that it could exceed 800 and even 1,000 seats. Politicians of all stripes raised their hands to their heads. It would have been an organizational disaster, among other things, because there is no physical space in the various Bundestag buildings.
The worst omens did not come true, but 736 seats is still outrageous. The parties and the citizens agree on this, which in the polls tend to point to the mammoth Bundestag as one of the most pressing problems of the system. The deputies have complained, for example, that the daily work has become excessively complicated. The commissions, with too many members, are less and less operational. There are not even rooms available with that much capacity. In addition, each deputy has the right to have their own advisers and staff (between five and seven people), which results in several more offices for each new member.
And that translates into public money. This 2023 the general budgets include a game of 1,400 million euros to support the Bundestag. The German Taxpayers Association has been calling for an end to budget overruns for years. "The objective [de la reforma] must be to reinforce the credibility of the policy. That means approving an electoral law with a large parliamentary majority that is constitutional and does not end up before the Federal Constitutional Court”, points out its president, Reiner Holznagel.
"The prospect of reaching 1,000 deputies in the next elections scares politicians, because they would have more seats, but the discontent of the population would grow immensely," says Grotz. “The pressure is maximum in these times of crisis and economic hardship for citizens. The Bundestag has become a symbol of the whole system, of whether politicians are ready to reform themselves, to change the rules of the game that affect their very existence, ”she adds.
The proposal of the government coalition consists of eliminating the additional seats and those of compensation to the rest of the parties to reduce the hemicycle to the 598 seats that in theory it should have. That would mean that some direct mandates, which is the most prestigious way to get a seat, would be left out of the Bundestag. It's delicate. Although all formations see the need to cut back, their zeal to avoid being left at a disadvantage will be maximum.
At the moment, the Christian Democrats of the CDU are radically against the proposal. Its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, has traditionally benefited most from the current system. These two formations present a single candidate at the federal level, but contest the elections separately. The CSU only runs in Bavaria, where it wins far more direct mandates than seats by second-vote ratio. "The proposal blatantly violates the will of the voters," exclaimed its leader in the Bundestag, Alexander Dobrindt, even mentioning that it is unconstitutional.
“We have been dragging this debate for 15 years. The CSU has so far blocked any major reform,” says Grotz. And she will continue to do so. Despite the fact that in reality the simple majority that he already has would be enough for Scholz to approve the reform, the change is of such importance that in the country of political consensus it is necessary to reach an agreement with the opposition. The Christian Democrats are pointing out proposals such as reducing the number of constituencies from the current 299 to 270 and also stop compensating for some additional seats, intermediate solutions that do not satisfy the government parties. Scholz's coalition wants to vote on the text before Easter. The conservatives will try to avoid it by all means, even taking it before the Constitutional Court.
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