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POLITICS

Why Germany’s supersize Bundestag might become smaller

With 736 MPs, the German Bundestag is one of the world’s largest parliaments - and keeps growing. But the coalition government wants to cap it at under 600 seats so it's not as bloated.

Why Germany's supersize Bundestag might become smaller
The interior of the German Bundestag in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

What’s happening?

The German Bundestag – the lower house of parliament – currently has 138 seats more than it technically should have.

Several attempts at reform in the past have so far failed to change this significantly. The country’s voting system was brought in following the war and it was seen as a compromise for smaller parties, who were worried they wouldn’t win any seats.

But now Germany’s political landscape has changed; there are no longer just two big parties – the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats – vying for a majority. 

Now politicians from the ruling coalition, made up of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP), have come up with a drastic proposal.

In order to significantly reduce the size of the Bundestag, the ‘overhang mandates’ and therefore also the compensatory mandates to achieve the balance of power would be abolished. 

What will this mean for voters?

Reducing the size of parliament could change some considerations about how Germans vote. That’s because Germany’s complicated voting system is what makes the Bundestag so large.

When Germans vote in an election – most recently in September 2021 – they cast two votes. The first vote, or Erststimme, is a vote for the representative in your district and is counted in the same way as a district vote in the US, UK, or Canada would be counted.

Right now, if someone wins the first vote outright, they go into the Bundestag. The second vote, or Zweistimme, is more important, as it’s for a party. Each party is assigned a number of seats proportional to the number of second votes they got.

READ ALSO: ‘My vote counts’: How Germany’s new legion of foreign voters see the election

But what if more members win seats on the first vote than the share of the second vote results entitles them to? When that happens, the Bundestag is allocated additional seats to compensate. These are called the ‘overhang seats’ and they’re part of why the Bundestag has so many members. To make up for this, other parties also get more seats, to ensure that the relative proportion of parties in the Bundestag reflects the election result. 

There is also the question on if taxpayer-money is being spent wisely – each of those extra MPs is also entitled to staff. 

The joint proposal for reform from three MPs, each representing one of the three governing parties, would get rid of these overhang seats. The number of seats a party receives in the Bundestag would then be decided exclusively by the second vote, which would be renamed a ‘list vote’ or ‘Listenstimme‘.

It would mean that Bundestag would always have its intended size of 598 members, which is the aim of the reform. 

How would this work in practice?

According to the proposal, if a party wins more direct mandates in a federal state than it would be entitled to according to the result of the second vote, then the “surplus” direct mandates with the weakest result should be capped.

To ensure that the votes for these candidates are not forfeited, voters should have a “substitute vote” in addition to their first vote. With this, according to the proposal, they can choose the candidate who will be their second choice as constituency representative.

If the mandate of the “overhang candidate” were to be eliminated, these substitute votes would be counted instead and the winning candidate would enter the Bundestag. Unlike today, winning a constituency would no longer guarantee a Bundestag mandate. The reformers therefore want to rename the first vote “personal vote” and the second vote “list vote”.

The joint proposal also envisions reducing the number of constituencies in Germany from 299 to 280.

Is this definitely happening?

No. The proposal would still have to be debated by parliament and could run into resistance from members who rely on direct votes. The opposition Christian Democrats, for example, generally oppose any measures to get rid of overhang seats.

Vocabulary:

German Federal Parliament – (der) Bundestag

Member of German Parliament – Mitgleid des Deutschen Bundestages (MdB) or Bundestagsabgeordneter 

Vote – (die) Stimme

Overhang Seat – (das) Überhangmandat 

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POLITICS

Germany plans return to debt-limit rules in 2023

Germany will reinstate its so-called debt brake in 2023 after suspending it for three years to cope with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, sources in the finance ministry said Wednesday.

Germany plans return to debt-limit rules in 2023

The government will borrow 17.2 billion euros ($18.1 million) next year, adhering to the rule enshrined in the constitution that normally limits

Germany’s public deficit to 0.35 percent of overall annual economic output, despite new spending as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the sources said.

The new borrowing set out in a draft budget to be presented to the cabinet on Friday is almost 10 billion euros higher than a previous figure for 2023 announced in April.

However, “despite a considerable increase in costs, the debt brake will be respected,” one of the sources said.

Although Germany is traditionally a frugal nation, the government broke its own debt rules at the start of the coronavirus pandemic and unleashed vast financial aid to steer the economy through the crisis.

READ ALSO: Debt-averse Germany to take on new borrowings to soften pandemic blow

The government has this year unveiled a multi-billion-euro support package to help companies in Europe’s biggest economy weather the fallout from the Ukraine war and sanctions against Russia.

Berlin has also spent billions to diversify its energy supply to reduce its dependence on Russia, as well as investing heavily in plans to tackle climate change and push digital technology.

But despite the additional spending, Finance Minister Christian Lindner has maintained the aim to reinstate the debt brake in 2023.

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