Overhang Hangover

Putting the Bundestag on a Diet

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The configuration of the Bundestag could be crucial in a close election next year.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The current lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, has 631 members. The minimum number is 598. Critics fear that number may eventually rise to as high as 750.
    • Germans have two votes, one for a direct candidate in their district and one for a party list in the state.
    • If a party in a state receives more direct mandates than proportional mandates, all the successful candidates gain additional seats in the Bundestag. Equalizing mandates are then used to maintain proportional representation.
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    Audio

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Bundestag
The current Bundestag has 631 members. Some politicians fear that number may rise to over 700. Source: DPA

It’s a little late to change Germany’s electoral laws, just one year before the federal elections. But that is exactly what Bundestag President Norbert Lammert of the center-right Christian Democratic Union is attempting to do.

Mr. Lammert is retiring after 37 years in the Bundestag. And it looks like he wants to ensure that before he leaves, he has done something about the ballooning number of parliamentarians in the German lower house.

While the minimum number of deputies in the chamber is 598, there are now 631, due to a particular quirk of German electoral rules, known as “overhang mandates.”  In the country’s proportional representation electoral system, voters have two votes, one for individual candidates in their district and one for the political party list in their state. When a party in one federal state receives more direct mandates via the first vote than the overall number of seats, it is entitled to additional seats in the Bundestag.

To compensate for this and to maintain proportional representation,  equalizing mandates are created, further increasing the number of parliamentarians.

The problem was kept within limits for decades, but with the changes in the party system and a judgment by the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe it has become an issue again recently.

In 2008 the Constitutional Court ruled that only a limited number of overhang mandates could be accepted which made the Bundestag create equalizing mandates in a bid to neutralize them. That is why the current Bundestag has, in addition to its minimum 598 members of Parliament, four overhang mandates for the CDU and 29 equalizing mandates. That makes a total of 631 members of parliament.

There have been growing fears that in the end, the Bundestag could number more than 700 members of parliament.

If the elections next Fall produce more overhang mandates for the Christian Democrats, then the Bundestag will be that much bigger. It would still not be oversized on an international scale – the British House of Commons has 650 seats, Italy’s lower house 630 members, the French Assemblée Nationale has 577 seats and in Poland, the Seym has 460. And these are all nations with smaller populations.

An electoral law reform which would reduce the Bundestag to a “normal” size of 598 mandates was not adopted during the current legislative period. In April Mr. Lammert formulated a proposal aimed at avoiding a major enlargement of the Bundestag. He wants to limit the number of mandates to around 630. So overhang mandates would only be equalized until the maximum number was reached.

However, the other parliamentary groups would not agree to this.  The Social Democrats do want reform, but even earlier in the year didn’t think there was enough time to implement it. The Left and Green parties rejected the proposal because they thought that proportional representation might again be distorted, and to their detriment. And all three parliamentary groups did not like the idea of it benefiting the Christian Democrats – the party which might end up with more seats than their proportion of the vote. With small majorities, that could be decisive for the formation of a government.

Now apparently Mr. Lammert wants to have another go. There have been growing fears that in the end, the Bundestag could number more than 700 members of parliament.

In the polls, the CDU still has just above 30 percent, clearly below the 41.5 percent it gained in the 2013 elections. And the SPD is still polling around 23 percent, compared with 25.7 percent in the last elections. That would likely lead to the number of overhang mandates growing and with it, the number of equalizing mandates. Mr. Lammert, who as Bundestag president also has to deal with the everyday problems of this huge apparatus, is considering the consequences: Many more members of parliament have to be accommodated in new offices, and many more employees will be required to cope with increased levels of administration.

Then there is the problem of efficiency: No member of parliament wants to be seen by his voters as a shrinking violet on the back benches. They would want to be seen by voters as a “specialist” in one field or another; but is the spectrum of issues the Bundestag deals with broad enough for this?

If the parties’ respective strengths remain as they are reflected in the polls, then the inflation of parliament could be less dramatic than many have assumed.

Earlier in the year, the political scientist Joachim Behnke from Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen made a calculation for Der Tagesspiegel on the basis of similar demoscopic data. He came up with a figure of between 661 and 687 members of parliament in the Bundestag. According to estimates up to now, the most frightening number of 750 members and more, only becomes feasible if the Christian Social Union, or CSU, Bavarian sister party to the CDU, loses ground in Bavaria and falls below 40 percent. That would have to be equalized nationwide, because the overhang of a party which only runs for office in one federal state would lead to a very high number of additional mandates.

But the scenario has been published in daily newspapers Die Welt and Bild and the Association of Taxpayers put out one of its warnings about waste last week, warning of the additional costs of around €70 million, or $76 million, and calling for the Bundestag to be reduced in size to 500 seats.

“Let’s call an end to these awful equalizing mandates,” said the association’s president, Reiner Holznagel. He expressed his suspicion that the “Bundestag parties” were shying away from fundamental electoral reform, because they wanted to keep the “lucrative additional mandates.”

The CSU has now come out in favor of Mr. Lammert’s proposals.  The Parliamentary Chairman of the CSU in the German Bundestag, Max Straubinger, wrote in the party’s mouthpiece “Bayernkurier”: “Electoral reform is absolutely necessary. It is also about the acceptance of the whole population.”

He also called for a capping process which would mean not all overhang mandates would have to be equalized in future.

It seems that at the moment everyone is passing the buck. The Christian Democrats don’t want to be seen as the guilty party if the voters do go ahead and create a much bigger parliament. And they want to be able to say in the election campaign: It wasn’t our fault. This puts the parliamentary parties of the SPD, the Greens and the Left party under pressure. But they can also point out that the sole beneficiary of a capping process would be the CDU and their Bavarian allies in the CSU.

This article first appeared in the Berlin daily, Der  Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: redaktion@tagesspiegel.de

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