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No special favors for German opposition

Carla Bleiker
May 3, 2016

Germany's top court has rejected a bid from the opposition Left party seeking greater powers in parliament for the country's tiny opposition. A former constitutional judge called grand coalitions problematic.

A Bundestag session. (Photo: picture-alliance/Sven Simon/A. Hilse)
Image: picture-alliance/Sven Simon/A. Hilse

The opposition in the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament, won't be getting more rights. The Left Party had sued to change the constitution so that the opposition consisting of the Green Party and the Left Party could challenge government decisions more easily. But they were rebuffed by Germany's Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe on Tuesday, which said it would not further alter the Bundestag parliament's voting rules to empower the opposition.

Germany is currently governed by a so-called "grand coalition" made up of the country's two largest parties, Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), plus the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the CSU. Together, they take up 503 seats of the Bundestag's 630. That leaves the opposition with 127 seats - a meager 20 percent of the total.

Under current parliamentary rules, the opposition can only raise tough challenges to government policy if members of the coalition vote against their government. In regular votes, the 127 representatives of the Left Party and the Greens don't stand a chance of stopping coalition policies - and there are not enough people to use the strong tools usually at the opposition's disposal, either.

Dietmar Bartsch. (Photo: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Jensen)
Bartsch: We didn't expect our claim to go throughImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Jensen

The main tool is the so-called "norm-control complaint," when parliament sends draft laws to the constitutional court to be reviewed. To do this, you need 25 percent of the Bundestag vote, meaning the Left and the Greens would need roughly 35 coalition politicians on their side to trigger the process.

"Unfortunately, using the sharpest tool, the norm-control complaint, won't be possible" for the opposition, Dietmar Bartsch, deputy-chairman of the Left party parliamentary group, told DW.

All representatives are created equal

Hans-Jürgen Papier was president of the Constitutional Court from 2002 to 2010. He believes the decision made by the judges on Tuesday was correct.

"The constitution provides for minority rights," he emphasized in a DW-interview. "For this, it looks at quotas and not at who's in the opposition."

The 25-percent hurdle for the norm-control complaint and other actions is anchored in the German Constitution. To change it now would send the wrong signal, the Constitutional Court judges said after they announced the verdict. All representatives are equal, after all, no matter which party they come from, and they all make independent decisions. An SPD representative is already able to vote in accordance with his colleagues from the Left Party and the Greens instead of with his government coalition.

Creating special rules for the opposition would signal to the representatives in the government parties that they were "of minor importance," the judges' statement said.

Government already accommodates opposition

It was already foreseeable after the original court date that the opposition wouldn't win. Head judge Andreas Vosskuhle had said in January that the government had already "made significant concessions" to accommodate the Greens and the Left Party.

After the "grand coalition" was formed in 2013, the CDU and SPD had changed the Bundestag's by-laws in acknowledgement of the difficult situation. For the duration of the current government's four-year term, the votes of 120 members of parliament are sufficient to initiate a commission of inquiry. Usually, 25 percent or 158 votes would be needed.

But despite these concessions, former Constitutional Court President Papier believes that a "grand coalition" can be problematic.

Hans-Jürgen Papier. (Photo: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa)
Papier: Minorities, not the opposition, are protected in the ConstitutionImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"This has shown again that 'grand coalitions' aren't exactly conducive to a vital and effective parliamentary democracy in the long run," Papier said. "But that's the political perspective. You can't derive judicial consequences from that and come up with unwritten opposition rights that aren't in the constitution."

'Arrogance of power'

The Green parliamentary group in the Bundestag had also criticized the situation before Tuesday's verdict was handed down.

"This grand coalition, this arrogance of power is not good for our country," said Anton Hofreiter, who heads the Greens' parliamentary group.

Bartsch said that at least the legal situation was clear now and that the Left Party would not try to sue again: "We'll just have to get more than 25 percent of the vote in the next elections."

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