The Social Democrats have named Bärbel Bas as the new president of the German parliament, the Bundestag. After the departure of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the country will again see a marked gender imbalance in politics.
The center-left Social Democrats (SPD), who emerged as the strongest party from last month's general election, have named their candidate for one of Germany's highest offices: the president of the Bundestag. Traditionally, a member of the strongest parliamentary group holds the post.
The president of the Bundestag is elected uncontested. His — or her — most important duty is to chair the sessions of parliament, determine the order of speakers, open and close the debates, and ensure that they take place in an orderly fashion. Since 2017 the office has been held by veteran conservative politician Wolfgang Schäuble from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) which, together with its Bavarian ally, the Christian Social Union (CSU), has been the strongest group in the federal parliament for the last 16 years — until now.
Fifty-three-year-old health expert Bärbel Bas has been a member of the SPD parliamentary group since 2009. The left-leaning Social Democrat hails from Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, and will be only the third woman in German history to take the office of president of the Bundestag, which will convene for its inaugural session on October 26.
Four men, five top jobs
The Bundestag president position "must be filled by a woman," Maria Noichl, the head of the SPD women's organization, had told the RND media network ahead of Wednesday's announcement. "The SPD's program for the future calls for a decade of equality," she said. "These words demand action."
Sociologist Jutta Allmendinger and the former chairman of the German Ethics Council, Peter Dabrock, had written an open letter to SPD members of parliament, calling for the appointment of the president of the Bundestag to be "a signal of departure and progress for the credibility of the party, which has become an election winner with the keywords 'respect' and 'participation.'"
The top state offices are: federal president, Bundestag president; federal chancellor; president of the Federal Constitutional Court and president of the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat.
The SPD's chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz, would be head of government in the party's emerging coalition with the Greens and neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP). If a man were to become Bundestag president, there would not be a single woman among Germany's top five leaders, Allmendinger and Dabrock write in their letter. "This would seem very much behind the times," they write.
Gender parity controversial in new coalition
Indeed, the appointment of Bas could have an impact on other personnel decisions such as that of the federal president. That is currently held by a Social Democrat: Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is up for reelection for his second of two possible terms next year and has indicated his willingness to stay in office. There had been pressure on him to consider stepping aside in favor of a female candidate. But this pressure may now be reduced.
The federal president is the head of state, but his powers are limited largely to ceremonial duties such as state visits and signing new laws into effect.
If Steinmeier were to be confirmed, another problem of fair political representation would arise: Then the SPD, which won only 24% of the vote in the recent election, would occupy three of the highest state offices.
Gender parity is likely to be a sticking point in the formation of the new government, too. Though Scholz had indicated that his goal was gender parity, the FDP is opposed to the idea.
"If you want to reflect the society in the Cabinet, it makes sense, of course, to have the same number of male and female ministers. But, first and foremost, professional qualifications must play a role, then gender affiliation," FDP executive board member Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann said.
Angela Merkel's final Cabinet set up after the previous general election was almost gender-balanced: It consisted of seven female ministers and nine male ministers.
In the new Bundestag, the Greens have the highest proportion of women in their own parliamentary group, with 58.8%, followed by the socialist Left Party (53%) and then the SPD (41.7%). Conservative parties are lagging behind: FDP (23.9 %), CDU/CSU (23.5%), and the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), with only 13.3% women in its parliamentary group.
A few weeks ago SPD MP Aydan Özuguz had been touted as a possible candidate for Bundestag president. The 54-year-old politician is of Turkish origin and one of the founding members of the SPD's group of Muslim parliamentarians. Thirty percent of the members of the SPD's Bundestag members have a migration background. Özuguz is now being touted to become one of several deputy presidents.
Meet Germany's first trans women joining parliament
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