Things actually went well. But now there is a renewed threat of what has made the electoral law reform in Germany a tough, doughy affair for years: the Bundestag could again lose itself in fine-tuning trying to somehow get the current electoral law to work. In order to prevent the unbridled inflation of Parliament.
When the three chairmen of the traffic light groups in the Bundestag electoral law commission presented a reform model in May, one of the previous hurdles in the debate finally seemed to have been cleared: the SPD, Greens and FDP made it clear that they want a Bundestag with a reliable number of 598 MPs in the future – and that they no longer get involved in the unfortunate reduction in the number of constituencies. That sounded like an offer to the Union. At least the way was clear for a reasonable debate.
After all, parliaments should have a fixed size. A parliament that cannot set its own limits as to the number of seats is open to suspicion that it is also unable to maintain the necessary discipline when it comes to legislation. With the specification of 598 seats, it was made clear that this size is practicable.
The fact that the Ampel parties presented their own reform proposal, a so-called capping model, could still be seen in May as an attempt to give the debate a direction. Even before that, the traffic light had sensibly narrowed the Commission’s mandate to looking for a reform model that would continue to combine proportional representation with elements of personalization. There is no majority in the Bundestag for fundamental system changes away from proportional representation.
What the Union faction is not interested in. She countered the traffic light proposal with the trench system, with which the Bundestag would be occupied in equal parts by majority and proportional representation. This tough system change was only represented by a minority of the parliamentary group in the previous electoral term. Now suddenly it became the model for the whole fraction. Ampel and Union were on a confrontational course.
And with that, the commission failed. On Friday, the last session ended in general exhaustion. The report to be presented at the end of August will document this. The commission was hoped to find a consensus to finally get back to a functioning electoral system that served the interests of everyone to some extent – which should be the case in a democracy after all.
Now the Union is playing offended liverwurst. During her years in government she was the one who delayed reasonable reform. In the opposition, she now also refuses. Haughty before the fall, haughty after. In terms of voting rights, she has apparently lost all hops and malt.
The traffic light, in turn, is now there with its capping model, which was perhaps only intended as an introduction to a compromise-finding process. The model – in the event of surpluses, the direct mandates with the weakest proportion of first votes are not allocated – comes from mothballs on the one hand. It has been debated for decades, and in Bavaria it was even law for a few years, but it has not caught on anywhere.
On the other hand, it is not a clean system, because on the one hand it retains the majority election component in the constituencies, but then corrects the result of this majority election if there are overhangs – by undermining a key feature of the majority election, namely the direct mandate guarantee for the constituency winners. However, each constituency should have its own member of parliament via a complex provision for substitute votes (“third vote”). It remains to be seen whether all this can be reconciled with the principles of electoral law – the Union wants to sue in Karlsruhe.
In any case, the model is problematic. And despite all the criticism of the attitude of the Union, you have to understand that too. The CSU would not have received almost all of the major city mandates in 2021 without compensation being possible via the state list – it didn’t work. She cannot agree with the traffic light model. But the coalition is also beginning to think. The SPD must expect that it will be without mandates in entire regions – always where it gets weak direct mandates. The Greens could also flourish if they continue to grow in the coming years.
Somewhat hidden in the papers discussed in the Bundestag this week, the traffic light has already indicated that it will be possible to talk again about the number of constituencies, a different size of parliament, and the offsetting of overhangs. Just the fine tuning of previous years.
Basically, there is a refusal to know on all sides. The current electoral system cannot be saved under the current conditions of the party system. And we will probably have to deal with them for a few more electoral periods. If majority voting (as a means of personalization) is integrated into proportional representation, which then does not produce the usual results of majority voting, then the system falters. The result: the notorious overhangs occur, which must either be left as they are (distortion of proportion), compensated for (bloating) or cut (subsequent intervention).
There are a few other variants of personalized proportional representation – but these were not even discussed in the commission. These variants usually boil down to doing without the majority vote component. But the Bundestag has not yet been able to bring itself to do so. It’s a joke: proportional representation has been practiced in Germany for over a hundred years. This is a well-established, democratic suffrage tradition. But there should be a bit of majority voting anyway. Although she is the disruptive factor.
And now? Can some advance defiantly, with the risk of failing in Karlsruhe. And the others can defiantly refuse and complain, with the risk that the constitutional court will decide otherwise. In the situation, the faction leaders are now in demand. And the President of the Bundestag.
Bärbel Bas has wisely stayed out of it because of the bad experiences of her predecessors Norbert Lammert and Wolfgang Schäuble, both of whom were unsuccessful in their attempts to initiate reform with the weight of their own office. Since the electoral law commission did not bring a satisfactory result, the only way to go is to make the electoral law reform a top priority again.