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Germany's new Bundestag: Only for the educated?

October 31, 2021

In the newly elected parliament 87% of lawmakers have university educations, a prevailing class marker in Germany. Very few deputies have led a life as a worker and low-income earner. Sabine Kinkartz met one of them.

Over the entrance ot parliament it reads 'for the German people'
Parliament is supposed to represent 'the German people,' but very few deputies are from the working classImage: Hans-Günther Oed/imago

Josip Juratovic was 15 years old when he came to Germany in 1974 with his mother, a Croatian guest worker. He graduated from high school and then trained at a car repair shop. For seven years, Juratovic worked as a painter on the assembly line at the car manufacturer Audi. He later became a works council member.

But since 2005, Juratovic has been a member of the German parliament for the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).

He's an exception, the trained automotive mechanic frequently emphasized. "I would like to see more people in the Bundestag who know life below the poverty line. People who have to fight for their existence every day," he told DW.

To this day, he said, his background in a factory shapes his political work. "I know what the prevailing opinion about politics is at my social level and what expectations these people have of politics," he said. "I can express complex political things in a simple way and have credibility." For members of parliament, he said, it's important to know the life situation of the people for whom they make laws or create socioeconomic conditions.

Josip Juratovic, an older balding man with gray hair wearing a dark gray suit
SPD lawmaker Josip Juratovic made his way from the assembly line into the federal parliamentImage: Rainer Pfisterer

Very few members of the Bundestag have led a life as a worker and low-income earner: 87% are academics, a prevailing marker of class in Germany. There are many lawyers and tax consultants among the lawmakers, while other parliamentarians have worked in political and social organizations, as civil servants or as research assistants in the Bundestag before running for parliament themselves.

One-sided life experience

The new Bundestag has been celebrated as being more diverse than its predecessors. But that's not true in all aspects: Only around 15% of German citizens are academics, while the majority have completed vocational training after school. "The life experience represented in the Bundestag is a bit one-sided," said Juratovic.

Criticism of the high proportion of academics in the Bundestag isn't new. In the early years of the postwar German parliament, almost every second member had a university degree, which was proportionally an even more skewed reflection of the population, since only about 3% of Germans had studied in the mid-1960s.

Daniel Hellmann, a research associate at the Institute for Parliamentary Research at the Foundation for Science and Democracy, sees no problem with this in principle. "If I'm looking for someone to represent my interests, I wouldn't primarily look at what profession they have, but which party they're in," he said. As an academic, he would not necessarily feel well-represented only by an academic in the Bundestag, he added. "After all, that depends on whether he shares my political positions."

A smiling Wolfgang Schäuble opening the parliament's session on October 26, 2021
Wolfgang Schäuble, a Bundestag deputy for 49 years, believes parliament will never be an exact reflection of the populationImage: Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance/AP

This is also the view of the last Bundestag president, Wolfgang Schäuble. In the first session of the newly-elected Bundestag on October 26, he warned against equating "representation with representativeness." "Each and every one of us does not simply represent a part of the people," he said in his valedictory speech. "Even if the diversity of our society is to be reflected in the representation of the people: The Bundestag will never be an exact reflection of the population."

As parliamentarians, financial lawyers have to familiarize themselves with agricultural issues, and craftsmen have to make decisions about nursing reforms, Schäuble said. The Bundestag bundles interests and thus bears responsibility for the cohesion of the country, he said. "That's why we should always question ourselves, whether we, whether our parties make the diversity of interests and opinions sufficiently heard."

Who stands up for whose interests?

But does that happen in reality? A joint study by the universities of Constance, Basel, Geneva and Stuttgart concluded in early 2021 that a diverse parliament does indeed lead to better representation of voters' interests. This is because members of the Bundestag who belong to a minority in parliament are often politically committed to their groups. After all, this is often one of the selection criteria in a party for candidacy.

But that tendency changes after four to eight years, according to the study. "Those who allow themselves to be reduced to representing only the concerns of women, migrants or young people quickly find themselves pigeonholed after a few years," wrote Stefanie Bailer, one of the study's authors. Later career phases, on the other hand, require professional expertise outside of group interests, the study found.

"The interesting question is who remains loyal to the issues of less-represented groups, and who instead turns to issues that cut across interest groups, such as financial or foreign policy," wrote Bailer. The exception, she added, is women, who often continue to advocate for equality in the later parts of their political careers.

Germany's new, diverse Bundestag gets to work

It's hard for the poorly educated

Juratovic does not only deal with social issues, but they are still particularly important to him — even if he often faces resistance. "I often have someone telling me: You and your workers, they don't even exist anymore and those who still exist, they don't vote for the SPD." Juratovic would also, therefore, wish that more people "with his standpoint," as he put it, would find their way into politics.

But he knows that isn't so easy. "When I first ran for office, I was terrible at expressing myself, both in terms of accent and grammar," he recalled. "I was asked: How are you going to hold your own next to an eloquent lawyer? What do you have the confidence to do?" It's easier for academics to enter politics, Juratovic said. "Just from the language and because they have learned to work in a structured way."

For political scientist Daniel Hellmann, there are a few other reasons why certain professional groups find it easier to enter politics. Those who are self-employed or work in academia usually have a flexible schedule and thus more time available to volunteer in politics, he said. "They can attend party events to make themselves known and build the networks needed to be nominated by the party for election," he said. 

Juratovic believes parties have a duty to select their young political talent in a more diverse way. To do that, he said, they also need to do some convincing. "Many of the rank-and-file think that's unattainable, I can't do that, it's only for academics or the rich," he said.

That's when he tries to encourage people: "Have the guts, you can do it! If you have something to say, it doesn't matter if you speak with an accent or what words you use," he said. "If you have something to say, you will be heard, I am convinced of that."

This article has been translated from German

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