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From above, hundreds of occupied seats form a half-circle facing a speaker's podium below a large pane of glass embossed with an eagle. Photo: Maurizio Gambarini
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The loyal, little, opposition

Wolfgang Dick / cd
October 20, 2013

A grand coalition is the likely outcome of German political parties' negotiations. But critics are calling it a bit too "grand" this time. Will the opposition influence new legislation at all over the next four years?


An elephant sits across from a tiny mouse. At least that's the sort of metaphor being used to describe the yawning gap in power between the likely coalition government and its minuscule opposition.

Of 631 seats in the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament, no less than 504 would be taken by a potential "grand coalition" between Chancellor Angela Merkel's union of Christian Democrats, its Bavarian sister party of Christian Socialists, and the Social Democratic Party.

That leaves just 127 seats for the likely opposition candidates, The Left and the Greens. Prior to September elections, opposition parties accounted for more than twice as many seats in German parliament; at that time, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was still among them. Having likely lost the SPD heavyweight from its bench, opposition forces are now left with few options for participating in - as well as critiquing - the work of the coalition government.

Opposition parties in Germany normally have an extensive toolbox for procedurally reigning in the governing parties: They can lodge official inquiries that he government must answer in full; they can assemble attention-grabbing investigatory committees to uncover behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing in government ministries; and they can call on Germany's highest court to judge the constitutionality of proposed legislation.

Severe restrictions

But in the plenary hall of the Bundestag, opposition voices will now be muffled. Since microphone time in the chamber is apportioned on relative political fraction strength, opposition speaking privileges will be curtailed. In a one-hour debate, for example, the opposition would have just 12 minutes to voice their concerns.

"The Greens and The Left will no longer be able to propose a committee of inquiry, nor to file a motion of no-confidence in the government," said political scientist Stephan Bröchler at the University of Giessen.

The right to invoke such proceedings is only afforded to opposition factions holding 25 percent or more of the Bundestag's seats, according to Article 44 of Germany's Basic Law as well as parliamentary rules. The Left and the Green Party together account for just 20.

"If it stays that way," Bröchler told DW, "there's the danger it'll do damage to democracy."

Inquiry at work

Jan van Aken, a Left party parliamentarian, said he sees things similarly. Like many of his colleagues, he places his trust, however, in the power of written inquiry procedures. That right will remain, after all. And although the government often tries to conceal points of critique in responding to such inquiries, opposition parties are well trained in the types of interrogative tactics that bring hidden, uncomfortable facts to the light of day.

A middle-aged caucasian man wearing a business suit glances off-camera, his hand raised absent-mindedly. Photo: Jens Jeske
A well-written inquiry can grab the public's attention, van Aken saidImage: imago/Jens Jeske

"What we've already found out together is remarkable," he told DW.

Weapons experts and deliveries of chemicals, which were approved by the last grand coalition that governed from 2005 to 2009, were uncovered by the opposition of the time.

But at that time, the opposition had an extra party amongst its ranks: the business-friendly, free-market liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). The FDP was Merkel's junior coalition partner for the last four years, but in September's elections, the FDP fell just below the 5 percent threshold necessary for entering Germany's Bundestag, excluding it from parliament and thus from the opposition's ranks.

Let's talk

Hans Josef Fell, a politician in Germany's Bundestag since 1989 as a member of the Green Party, mentioned a different way of influencing the government.

A bald caucasian man with a gray-black beard smiles at the camera a professional/office setting. Photo: Therese Aufschlager
A good argument can persuade, Fell saidImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"We talk to each other in parliamentary committees," he told DW. One thing the public doesn't often notice, he said, is that political parties work together in a friendly and professional atmosphere within these subject-specific groups. "With good arguments, you can always persuade," Fell added. "Rarely are the political fronts entrenched."

Many in the opposition share that view. The opposition's task is completed, as they see it, when the combined opposition groups succeed in bringing topics to the table that might ultimately work their way into the general political debate.

Extra-parliamentary help

Opposition parties will also receive help from another angle. Under grand coalition governments, said Uwe Jun, a political scientist at the University of Trier, stronger resistance movements tend to form outside the walls of parliament. Unions, citizens' initiatives, protest movements and even the media take part, Jun said.

A middle-aged caucasian man with dark hair and wearing glasses smiles at the camera. Photo: Frank Ossenbrink
Dehm has little faith in support from the mediaImage: Frank Ossenbrink

With regard to the media, however, parliamentarian Dieter Dehm of The Left party disagreed. "Critical journalism has declined miserably over the last 30 years," he told DW, referencing what he considers to be the tabloid nature of the press.

While The Left received 8.6 percent of the popular vote, Dehm said, it receives just one percent of the coverage by state-funded news broadcasters.

Constitutional change?

Even some members of the CDU see the parliamentary situation as a bit too lopsided. In an interview with the regional Rhein-Neckar newspaper, CDU Deputy Chairman Thomas Strobl conceded that he was "not entirely comfortable" with the current arrangement.

A constitutional change, or at the very least a change in the Bundestag's bylaws, is inevitable, according to political scientist Bröchler.

Left Party parliamentarian van Aken as well as other opposition politicians will also strive for greater legal rights for the opposition in parliament.

"If the governing coalition doesn't want to grant us further minority rights, our only path will be toward the Constitutional Court," van Aken said.

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