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New German parliament convenes for first time

October 24, 2017

Germany's Bundestag has chosen outgoing Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble to be its parliamentary president, or speaker. Accepting the post, Schäuble stressed the need to maintain mutual "respect" amid heated debates.

Merkel shaking Schäuble's hand
Image: Reuters/F. Bensch

Germany's new parliament held its first session since September 24 elections in Berlin on Tuesday, with one of its first acts being to choose Wolfgang Schäuble from Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Party (CDU) as the president or speaker.

The choice of Schäuble was widely expected and he was elected by a wide majority of 501 votes in his favor. There were 173 lawmakers who voted against his appointment and 30 abstained.

The president of the Bundestag, who is responsible for maintaining parliamentary order and, if necessary, censuring unruly MPs, is usually a member of the largest parliamentary party.

In his acceptance speech, the 75-year-old political veteran urged parliamentarians not to lose a sense of fairness and respect. A number of his remarks could be read as warnings to the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, who had promised after the national election on September 24 to "hound" the established parties. 

"Over the past months, our country has heard expressions of contempt and humiliation. They have no place in a civilized society based on cooperation," he said, adding: "We shouldn't get into fistfights, even verbal ones." 

In an echo of the AfD's vow to "take back our country and people" Schäuble said: "No one alone represents the people."

He also said that, after 45 years of experience as a parliamentarian, he had learned that "commotion and a feeling of crisis" were "not really new" in German politics, adding that he felt "a sense of calm at the disputes that we will and must have in the party."

Read more: Germany's new Bundestag: Who is who in parliament

Controversial candidate

Albrecht Glaser
The other parties refused to elect the AfD's Glaser Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

But despite admonitions that deputies should work together, conflict was not long in coming. The AfD's first motion, which concerned who was to speak first in the parliamentary session, was rejected by the other parties. And the same fate awaited their nominee, Albrecht Glaser, 75, for one of the six parliamentary vice presidents. Glaser fell far short of the majority needed for election in three separate votes.

Glaser has courted controversy by classifying Islam as a political ideology and asserting that Muslims had forfeited their right to freedom of religion, as Islam did not respect that freedom.

The center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the Left Party have said Glaser is not suited to serve as one of Schäuble's deputies. Before the parliamentary vote, the leader of the SPD parliamentary party, Andrea Nahles told German public broadcaster ZDF that Glaser would not adequately uphold the values of Germany's Basic Law. The AfD insists that Glaser's remarks do conform to it.

Bundestag vice presidents chair sessions, set the agenda and call lawmakers to order where necessary. Normally each party in parliament is allowed to name at least one vice president. The vice presidents of the other parties were elected without incident.

The opposition to Glaser's nomination is a first taste of the clashes likely to occur as the AfD tries pushing its widely anti-immigration, anti-Islam and anti-euro agenda in the parliament. The AfD will have the opportunity to name an alternative candidate for confirmation in a later Bundestag session. 

Read more: The far-right AfD in the Bundestag: What you need to know

Germany's biggest ever parliament

Symbolbild Jamaika Koalition
Coalition talks on 'Jamaica' are proving thornyImage: Imago/Ralph Peters

The parliament is meeting even though Germany currently has no elected government, with election winner Angela Merkel still engaged in difficult talks with prospective coalition partners the FDP and the Greens. If the coalition — called a "Jamaica" coalition in Germany because the party colors are those of the Jamaican flag — is created, it would be the first such ruling alliance at national level in German history.

Read more: Opinion: Angela Merkel's Jamaica coalition is right for Germany

The previous government will run the country in a caretaker capacity until a decision on the possible coalition is reached, which could stretch into early 2018. If negotiations are not successful, Merkel will have the choice of forming a minority government, persuading a previously unwilling SPD to reenter a coalition with the conservatives or calling new elections, none of which are seen by analysts as likely options.

Merkel has ruled out forming any alliance with the Left party or the AfD.

The new parliament is the world's biggest democratic lower house of parliament for a single country, with 709 members compared with 631 in the previous legislative assembly. It also brings together six parliamentary parties, in this case ranging from far-left to far-right, for the first time since 1957.

Read more: Germany's political parties CDU, CSU, SPD, AfD, FDP, Left party, Greens - what you need to know

tj/se (Reuters, dpa)