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Caught in election crossfire

March 1, 2013

Germany's opposition-controlled upper house of parliament has passed two draft laws: one for a minimum wage and another for equal tax status for gay couples. It's no coincidence that they come in an election year.

A close-up photo of two men's hands, with wedding rings, touching. (Photo: Julian Stratenschulte dpa)
Image: picture alliance/dpa

The German upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, was unusually productive on Friday. Its members passed two draft laws - one advocating a minimum wage of 8.5 euros ($11) per hour and another proposing equal tax status for gay couples - meaning that the lower house, the Bundestag, must debate and vote on both proposals.

"Today, the Bundesrat has been made into a stage for the federal elections," Hesse's Christian Democrat state premier, Volker Bouffier, said. He was complaining about the comparatively unusual process of proposals being sent from the upper to the lower house - not the other way around.

Both bills have broad support from the opposition Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party. Owing to state elections since the last German federal election in 2009, these opposition parties have a controlling influence in the Bundesrat.

On the subject of equal tax rights for gay couples, Social Democrat politician Norbert Walter-Borjans said it was "shameful" that the debate remained open. The measure would allow homosexual couples to pool their tax rebates like married couples can, and pay less tax overall.

In a similar case last year, pertaining to exemption from a land transfer tax in case of separation, the German Constitutional Court ruled in August that the tax benefit must apply to gay couples, saying there was no legal justification to distinguish between gay and heterosexual partnerships. Greens politician Monika Heinold advocated passing the bill on this basis, saying that otherwise parliament might "once again receive a written reprimand from the Constitutional Court." The Karlsruhe court also ruled this February that gay couples should have equal rights to adopt children, again forcing parliament's hand.

No-lose for the opposition

The bill is considered likely to pass in the lower house, owing to at least partial support from Chancellor Merkel's CDU and the junior coalition partners, the FDP. However, several CDU and Bavarian CSU politicians have expressed concerns, most notably Bavarian State Premier Horst Seehofer, who warned against a "quick-fire" decision.

Irrespective of whether the bill passes or not, it's an election talking point for the opposition - either they initiated the change, or Chancellor Merkel and her government prevented it.

There's probably a similar logic behind proposed minimum wage of 8.5 euros per hour, a bill that's considered less likely to clear the Bundestag in the form presented on Friday. Since the change of government in Lower Saxony, the German state that went to the polls most recently, the opposition holds a majority in the upper house. The minimum wage proposal scraped through the Bundesrat with the support only of states controlled by either the Social Democrats, Greens and the Left Party. The governing Christian Democrats and Free Democrats are almost unanimous that 8.5 euros per hour is too high, while some within their ranks oppose the concept of a minimum wage.

Of the 27 EU member states, 20 legally enforce a minimum hourly rate of pay. The figures range from 10.83 euros per hour in Luxembourg to 0.93 euros in Romania.

msh/dr (AFP, dpa, epd, KNA)