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Germany passes law to shrink its XXL parliament

Volker Witting | Rina Goldenberg
Published January 21, 2023last updated March 17, 2023

The German federal parliament, the Bundestag, is bursting at the seams. Now the ruling parties have pushed through legislation to make it smaller and limit its size. But the opposition argues that is unconstitutional.

handymen more seats in the Bundestag
The plenary chamber of the Bundestag has to be outfitted with more chairs every time the parliament growsImage: Tim Brakemeier/dpa/picture alliance

After a fiery debate, chancellor Olaf Scholz's center-left coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) used its majority to pass a bill to reduce the size of the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, to 630. 400 lawmakers voted in favor, 261 against and 23 abstained.

Ahead of the vote, Sebastian Hartmann (SPD) took to the pulpit to explain again that the goal is "a simple, comprehensible electoral law".

Germany's federal parliament has attracted international attention because, with its 736 members, it had become larger than any other parliament. Only the Chinese National People's Congress and the House of Lords in the United Kingdom are larger but neither of these is democratically elected.

A large majority of Germans say the parliament is too big — and too expensive: The 2023 federal budget earmarked around €1.4 billion ($1.52 billion), including all ancillary costs, for the Bundestag.

Germany's opposition, which had profited from the electoral system as it was, is now up in arms and taking the matter to the Constitutional Court.

No more 'overhang' or 'balance' seats

Germany's electoral system is complicated. Voters cast two votes in a federal election: One for a deputy to represent their constituency and one for their preferred party. The seats in the Bundestag are filled with directly-elected lawmakers and others who come in from lists according to the proportion of the vote the parties receive nationally.

All this will remain unchanged.

But until now, each directly elected representative was entitled to a seat in parliament. According to the reformed law, this will no longer be the case.

From the next general election in 2025, it will be solely the proportion of the national vote that counts. And if a party wins more constituencies than it deserves according to the national vote, some of those directly elected candidates will not get a seat in parliament.

Until now, when a party won more constituencies than the number of seats they were entitled to according to the proportion of their national vote, the directly elected representatives would still get a seat in parliament, leading to so-called "overhang seats" (Überhangmandate).

"Balance seats" (Ausgleichsmandate) were then granted to the other parties to ensure they all get the proportion of seats determined by the party vote. In the most recent Bundestag election in 2021, this resulted in a total of 138 extra seats.

This was no problem as long as the two big parties, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) were strong. But for decades, their voter support has shrunk and more and smaller parties have entered parliament, so the system turned messy.

Chart showing the size of parliaments in China, Germany, Italy, the US and Austria
At 709 seats the previous Bundestag before 2021 was already one of the largest in the world

Left Party and CSU are afraid of losing out

The governing coalition's new law also abolishes another clause, the "Grundmandatsklausel": It enabled a party that won at least three constituencies ("direct mandates") would enter the Bundestag even if failed to clear the 5% threshold to enter parliament. 

This abolishment was a last-minute decision and triggered a storm of criticism.

The Left Party benefited from this clause in the 2021 election. The party won only 4.9% of the vote back then, but because three of its candidates won their respective constituencies, the 5% threshold was overcome and the party got 39 seats.

The 5% hurdle was introduced to ensure that not too many small parties enter the Bundestag, something that led to the fragmentation of the parliament and eventually facilitated the rise of the Nazis in the Weimar Republic. The one exception in the modern-day Bundestag is the minority party SouthSchleswig Voter Association (SSW) of the Danish and Frisian minority in the country's far north. It is exempt from meeting the threshold to ensure minority representation and is currently represented by one lawmaker.

But not only the Left Party is vehemently opposed to abolishing the "Grundmandatsklausel." 

The center-right Christian Social Union (CSU), which only competes in the state of Bavaria, has benefited from the current electoral system and is worried it could lose representation altogether if it falls from its 2021 result of 5.2% to under 5%.

With the new system, the party has to fear for its representation in the future: If it falls below 5% of the votes nationwide (at the last election it won 5.1% of the vote), it would no longer be represented in the Bundestag at all. Even if its candidates came in first in the majority of Bavarian constituencies.

Speaking in the Bundestag ahead of the vote, Alexander Dobrindt, head of the Bundestag group of CSU parliamentarians, accused the ruling parties of manipulation and a lack of respect.

How do German elections work?

Constitutional Court to rule

For more than a decade there have been attempts to shrink the parliament, but they have all failed. "All parties see the need for downsizing, but at the same time they are scrupulously careful not to be disadvantaged if there is a reform," Klaus Stüwe, chair of comparative politics at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, told DW.

At the end of Friday's parliamentary session, opposition leader Friedrich Merz (CDU) stressed that his party was in favor of reducing the size of the Bundestag. He pointed to his party's alternative proposal and called for further negotiations.

Whether the reform bill of the center-left coalition will permanently change German electoral law, however, will ultimately be decided by the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe.

This article was originally written in German. It was first published on January 20, 2023 and later updated to reflect recent developments.

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Volker Witting
Volker Witting Volker Witting has been a political correspondent for DW-TV and online for more than 20 years.