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The role of Germany's parliamentary opposition

Carla Bleiker | Jefferson Chase
September 24, 2017

Following the federal election, the SPD has announced it will go into opposition. What role does the main opposition party play in the Bundestag?

The Reichstag building, the seat of the German lower house of parliament Bundestag
Image: Reuters/S. Loos

After the federal election, all parties who garnered more than 5 percent of the popular vote nationwide are allocated seats in the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament. Parties who are not part of the government coalition make up the parliamentary opposition.

What is the role of the opposition?

In a parliamentary democracy like Germany, the tasks of the opposition have traditionally included scrutinizing the work of the government, initiating debate about policies and presenting alternatives to bills brought forward by government politicians.

All parliamentarians are free to state their beliefs. This also goes for members of the opposition, whose opinions can be diametrically opposed to the views of parliamentarians in government parties.

Is there such a thing as an opposition leader in Germany?

No. In Germany, being the opposition party that has won the most votes comes with a certain prestige, but there's no specific position attached to it.

Nor are the parties making up the opposition a single big bloc. The opposition in this parliament spans nearly the entire German political spectrum from the Left Party to the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). They are rivals, not partners.

What special rights does the biggest opposition party have?

The number of seats a party holds in the Bundestag, allocated according to the percentage of votes they won, does matter when it comes to the time granted to speakers. The stronger the party, the more time parliamentarians will have to speak in debates.

The Bundestag budget committee is traditionally headed by someone from the largest opposition party.

What tools does the opposition have?

Infografik Bundestag Sitzverteilung ENG
The September 24, 2017 elections yielded this parliament

One tool to oversee the work of the government is the enquiry. All parliamentary groups can file an enquiry containing questions directed at the government. In general, enquiries are almost exclusively filed by the opposition. The number of seats a party has in the Bundestag doesn't matter when it comes to enquiries - the largest opposition party has no special privilege here.

An enquiry is a popular way to scrutinize the government's work asking for clarifications of government plans or results of government policies. In the last legislative period from 2009 to 2013, parliamentarians filed 54 "large" enquiries, requiring plenary debate and 3,629 "small" enquires, necessitating a written response. 

Another tool is the fact-finding committee. Parliamentarians can vote to establish such a committee on a certain political issue at any given time. The initiative from this usually comes from the opposition because the committee is supposed to uncover irregularities or even wrongdoings involving the government. High-profile examples in recent years have included committees on the NSU neo-Nazi group and the NSA surveillance affair

Traditionally a quarter of all parliamentarians need to vote in favor of initiating a fact-finding committee for it to go forward. 

All parties in the Bundestag traditionally appoint a parliamentary vice-president. They are deputies to the parliamentary president, currently Wolfgang Schäuble, and preside over debates. Vice-presidents must be approved by a majority of deputies

What roles do opposition parties play outside of the Bundestag?

All parties represented in the Bundestag, including the opposition, are also represented in committees or councils throughout civil society in Germany. 

Parliamentarians sit on the boards of Germany's public broadcasters and the Federal Agency for Civic Education, which provides students and other interested parties with information about what it means to be a German citizen – as well as Germany's Nazi past and current right-wing crimes.

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker