Germany’s Proliferating Parliament

Building a Smarter German-American Partnership

Germany’s Bundestag contains one of the largest numbers of elected officials in the world—and it is about to get even bigger.

Currently housing 620 members, the size of the Bundestag is likely to grow due to the new election laws passed last year. As the laws will be in effect for the September 22 elections, the results could mean that the number of seats could grow to well over 700—surpassing the British House of Commons and the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and approaching the European Parliament with 766 members who represent over 375 million eligible voters in the European Union. The number of Germany’s eligible voters is 62 million.

Who will benefit from this increased number remains uncertain in what is sure to be a close race.

Because Germans have two votes in electing the parliament, the electoral reforms could generate surprises among the parties competing for support.

One vote is for an individual candidate running to represent one of the 299 electoral districts throughout the country. The second vote is for one of the competing parties who present their respective list of candidates. That second vote determines how the parties wind up distributed in the Bundestag and therefore shapes the parameters for forming majorities.

While some parties see many of their members arrive in the Bundestag by winning their district, other parties rely on that second vote to gain their representation. Taking the current governing coalition as an example, the vast majority of the CDU members of parliament are directly elected, whereas the representatives of the FDP arrive through the second vote. In fact, the FDP has not won a direct mandate in a district in over two decades. Despite that, the FDP managed to secure a record-setting percentage of votes in the sixteen Länder in the previous election to secure enough representatives to forge a majority with the CDU, and of course the CSU.

Now the electoral reforms require that the distribution of seats needs to be adjusted according to a complicated formula, awarding more seats to the political parties represented in the Bundestag through what is called overhang mandates and now equalization mandates. Both of these tools can lead to a significant increase in representatives of the parties.

How this becomes useful to a party like the FDP or the Greens, which have far fewer directly-elected members, remains to be seen. In the end, the line up of the parties after the election will be shaped by that second vote regardless of how many people wind up sitting in the Bundestag.

In a recent election in the state of Lower Saxony, CDU voters used a well-known tactic to try and secure their majority in the state parliament. They split their votes by giving their first vote to their favorite in the election district and their second vote to the FDP. The result backfired on them, allowing the SPD and the Greens to win by a razor-sharp margin in one sole district.

That lesson might lead to fewer CDU voters choosing to split their votes in the September 22 elections, but the electoral reforms might kick in to the benefit of—well, that remains to be seen.

Whatever happens, it seems that the Bundestag is going to have a lot more members arguing and debating the course of Germany in the next four years. Germany’s Constitutional Court has kept a watchful eye on this democratic process. Yet, it seems that the result will be a potential increase in the Bundestag’s budget, just as the finance minister—whoever that might be—will be trying to make fiscal ends meet. A proliferating Bundestag may mean more fairness to the democratic process even if it is a more expensive democracy.