New Bundestag

Germany's divisive XXL parliament

Konstituierende Sitzung des Bundestages
How am I supposed to remember all these names? Source: DPA

Berliners are already joking about the New Year’s fireworks beginning earlier this year in the capital and lasting longer – when tempers flare up in Germany’s bigger, more divisive new parliament.

The Bundestag welcomed a record 709 members on Tuesday when it assembled for the first time after a month-long break, making it the largest parliament in the Western world. The super-sized chamber, expected to cost tax payers an additional €75 million ($88 million) per year, includes 92 parliamentarians from the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim Alternative for Germany (AfD), the first far-right party to enter the lower chamber in nearly 60 years.

If the bloated size of the Bundestag weren’t enough to complicate the day-to-day work of the lawmakers, the populists have vowed to be heard in a parliament they claim has become unresponsive and irrelevant under Chancellor Angela Merkel. Alexander Gauland, an AfD deputy leader in parliament, fueled worries of far-right rabble-rousing in parliament when on election night last month, after the AfD won 13 percent of the federal vote, he said the party would “hunt Merkel” and fight to “take back our country.” The AfD is the third-largest party in parliament after the chancellor’s Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party.

“Nobody on their own represents the people.”

Wolfgang Schäuble, Bundestag president

But the established parties, meeting for the first session in the historic Reichstag building near the Brandenburg Gate, moved quickly to nip any provocation by the newcomers in the bud by electing Wolfgang Schäuble, the longest-serving member of parliament, as Bundestag president. The highly experienced former finance minister, 75, is one of Germany’s most powerful politicians and seen as well-qualified to tame rowdy lawmakers.

Without mentioning the populist party, Mr. Schäuble told the assembly in his inaugural speech that “democratic fighting” over positions was important but rules had to be followed, emphasizing the need for the parties to show fairness and accept decisions. “Nobody on their own represents the people,” he warned.

In an interview with German television, Christian Lindner, the leader of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), referred to Mr. Schäuble as an “extraordinary figure” in German politics: “He has gravitas, a clear position and a natural authority that will be good to have in a parliament that has just become more diverse, and where some manners may be called into question.” Mr. Lindner is seen as a potential candidate to succeed Mr. Schäuble as finance minister.

First plenary session at the German lower house of Parliament after general elections in Berlin
AfD leaders Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland had to cast their vote for the AfD vice president more than once. Source: Reuters

Provocation is a key tool in the AfD’s war chest. It was used most recently in the party’s nomination of one of its parliamentarians, Albrecht Glaser, as their Bundestag vice president. He was one of six nominated for six vice president positions — one from each parliamentary group. But on Tuesday, he failed to receive enough votes to win the position in three rounds of voting so that a special committee will now have to decide how to fill the position. The 75-year-old, who was a member of Angela Merkel’s CDU for four decades until co-founding the AfD in 2013, opposes religious freedoms for Muslims and has labeled Islam as a political ideology rather than a religion. AfD co-chair Alice Weidel said the party planned to stick with him as their candidate.

Ahead of the vote, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, The Left party and the Free Democrats had spoken out against Mr. Glaser’s nomination because of the influence he could have in parliament. Bundestag vice presidents chair sessions, set the agenda and call lawmakers to order where necessary. Their opposition is the first taste of the political fireworks that are likely to light up the assembly if the AfD pushes its populist agenda in the parliament. It comes amid complicated coalition talks about forming a new government between Ms. Merkel’s conservative bloc made up of her Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, and the Free Democrats and Greens.

A nasty feud is expected when the AfD pursues one of its major goals – namely, to set up a parliamentary committee to investigate Ms. Merkel’s handling of the 2015 refugee crisis. During the election campaign, Mr. Gauland, his co-chair, Alice Weiland, and other senior party members accused the chancellor of breaking German law by temporarily opening the borders for asylum seekers stranded in Hungary. Whether the populists can muster enough support to establish an investigative committee is doubtful, considering that all of the other parties have refused to work with them.

Though there is no agreed-upon strategy for dealing with the Bundestag’s far-right contingent, the newly-elected deputy of the Free Democrats’ parliamentary group, Christian Dürr, told Handelsblatt that it’s important for members to stay focused. “The AfD is dangerous, because the party is bringing right-wing issues and völkisch  (nationalistic) politics into the Bundestag; that’s why we need to be clear in calling it out when boundaries are crossed,” he said. “But we can’t spend the whole day jumping through every hoop the AfD puts before us,” said Mr. Dürr whose party, against its objections, has been seated between the CDU-CSU bloc and the AfD. “Instead, we need to take aim at the substantive issues of the party.”

His colleague Otto Fricke, the FDP’s point-person on budget policy, summed up his strategy on dealing with the AfD as being “tough on the issues, clear and explicit in tone, without giving [the party] a chance to play the victim.”

24 Seat distribution in the German Parliament 2017-01

John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. Daniel Delhaes and Dana Heide with Handelsblatt in Berlin contributed to this story. To contact the authors: blau@handelsblatt.com, delhaes@handelsblatt.com and d.heide@handelsblatt.com

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