Berlin crisis gives chance to reform

It had to happen. Political fragmentation induced by economic anguish and mass unemployment has finally tipped Germany into a full-blown political crisis.

Last week’s election has delivered a hung parliament, left two contenders claiming a right to the chancellery and triggered coalition talks that could yield almost any conceivable outcome. Not since the last days of the Weimar republic has Germany faced such a parliamentary dead end.

This is no excitable commentator speaking but Hans Herbert von Arnim, a sober professor of publiclaw at Speyer University. Yet If he is right, the “systemic crisis” Berlinhas manoeuvred itself into presentsa golden opportunity to do awaywith what allowed it to erupt inthe first place.

If the vote brings a “grand coalition” between chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democratic Party and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, its first decision, says Prof von Arnim, should be to reform an electoral system that, if left untouched, could make Germany durably ungovernable.

Many agree, from Helmut Schmidt, the former SPD chancellor, to Dieter Hundt, head of the German employers’ federation, and Georg Milbradt, the CDU state premier of Saxony. They are right. If there were any doubts about the system’s flaws, One look at the misshapen new Bundestag, with its centre-right and centre-left hostage to 54 neo-communists, will dissipatedispel themany doubts about the system’s flaws. The rules governing the make-up of the house have proved are undemocratic, overly complex and dangerously inefficient.

Fittingly for the country that invented over-engineering, The electoral law Germany’s main parties agreed on after the war is a mechanism so mind-boggling as to be nearly incomprehensible. Every voter has two votes: the Erststimme, or first vote, for a constituency candidate elected in a first-past-the-post race, and the Zweitstimme, or second vote, for competing regional party lists.

The complexion of the house is determined by proportional representation, with the number of seats held by each party reflecting the percentage of Zweitstimme obtained nationally. The Erststimme, meanwhile, dictates which legislators will fill these seats.

Of the Bundestag’s 598 representatives, half are directly elected. The remaining seats each party is entitled to under the proportional system go to the candidates on their regional lists. If one party wins more constituencies than the number of seats it is entitled to, it can receive “overhang” seats.

Confused? So are voters. A recent opinion poll shows two-thirds of Germans mistakenly think the Erststimme is “more important” than the Zweitstimme, which determines a party’s weight in the house.

The system is so opaque that if the CDU gained more than 41,000 out of 200,000 Zweitstimme in the by-election taking place in Dresden next week, it would lose its right to one overhang mandate, and therefore a seat in the house. It is undemocratic, too, because parties, not voters, decide who enters parliament. In a classic case of a n insider-outsider system conceived to protect the incumbents, proportional representation means the candidates topping the regional lists are guaranteed to end up in the house. According to Prof von Arnim, two-thirds of the candidates who ran in 2002 could not have been voted out. And one wonders how democratic can a system be is that delivers an outcome with which 70 per cent of voters, according to an opinion survey published this week, are deeply unhappy?

Crucially, the system encourages fragmentation, especially at times of economic turbulence and empty state coffers when the big parties cannot offer the sweeteners and fantastic promises that small, groupings that will never enter the chancellery unviable groups can afford to dangle in front of before voters. ’ noses. The Sperrklausel, a clause A rule that prevents any party with less than 5 per cent of the votes from entering the house has failed to keep this disintegration in check. There were three parties in the house in 1961, four from 1983 and five since 1990. Last Sunday marked the first time since 1949 that the SPD and CDU failed to muster more than 70 per cent of the votes. At this rate, hung parliaments could become the norm, prompting yet more disaffection with mainstream politics.

The solution would be for CDU and SPD to adopt majority representation based on the British first-past-the-post model – a simple majority of the house would suffice. By excluding small groupings, such a system would deliver clear majorities and stop gratifying protest votes.

The academic debate about the pros and cons of proportional versus majority representation is as old as parliamentary democracy. Yet the relative loss of fairness that majority representation entails seems a small price to pay to avoid permanent political stalemate. In any case, small parties would not really disappear but be come subsumed in their larger peers. Because of the constituency system, geographically concentrated minorities, such as Danish voters of Schleswig Holstein or the Sorbs of Saxony, would even find it easier to gain representation.Germany came close to adopting majority representation in 1966, the first and last only time a “grand coalition” ruled. the country. The reform was part of the coalition agreement but and only fell through after a terrified Free Democratic Party began courting the SPD.

One would hope that if the Social and Christian Democrats were to link up again, they would not succumb to such short-termist temptations.

As the counter-example of France shows, sound electoral rules are no substitute for political courage. Neither would they make politicians more honest, more responsible or more inclined to forge ahead with the painful structural reforms Germany’s economic crisis urgently requires. Yet clear majorities would allow the big parties to run on concrete platforms and, once in power, to do what they have promised to do rather than submit their pledges to the meat-grinder of coalition talks.

Whether the alternative is explosive chaos à la Weimar or gradual loss of faith in democratic institutions, there really is nothing to lose.

The writer is the FT’s Berlin bureau chief

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