Which democratic system is better

Politics & Communication

In a parliamentary democracy like Germany, parliament is the linchpin of political decision-making. The rapid spread of the coronavirus is massively challenging the political system. Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) herself called the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen a "democratic imposition". To protect the population, basic rights have been and are curtailed by bans on contact and assembly, distance requirements, travel restrictions and the closure of public institutions. It seems all the more important that parliamentarism - the essential characteristic of parliamentary democracy - is functional and efficient. However, this is increasingly being called into question.

Already in the spring voices were loud criticizing a "self-dwarfing" of the parliament. With the passing of the Infection Protection Act (IfSG), the Bundestag transferred excessive powers to the Federal Ministry of Health and thereby weakened its own position. In addition, the amendment of the Bundestag's rules of procedure (GO-BT) was objected to, according to which parliament is already quorate if more than a quarter - instead of half - of its members are present in the plenary. As a result, scandalous buzzwords about the "mini" or "shrink parliament" circulated regardless of the number of MPs who were actually present in the plenary.

Pointed parliamentary criticism

With the new government measures of the "lockdown light" to combat the second corona wave, the tone on the question of the function and performance of parliament in times of crisis has intensified. The FDP chairman Christian Lindner complained about the insufficient participation of the Bundestag in the decision-making about the protective measures. He underlined that the resolutions threatened to "deform parliamentary democracy". Alexander Gauland, co-chairman of the AfD parliamentary group, even spoke of the "elimination of parliament" with a view to the measures that had been agreed by the federal chancellor and the prime ministers of the federal states. Tones that are otherwise only associated with illiberal democracies should now also apply to Germany. A well-known ZDF satirical program also added fuel to the fire, in which the emphatically "serious question" was asked: "If Parliament is only allowed to comment on such massive cuts in fundamental rights posthumously, what is the point?"

These escalations are problematic: They go far beyond the understandable demand that a strengthened legal basis and a parliamentary debate on vital but freedom-restricting government measures are needed. Above all, however, they fail to recognize the logic of the parliamentary system of government.

Government action as a failed standard of assessment

Questioning the functionality and efficiency of the Bundestag in Corona times is largely based on the accusation of dominant government action: Due to the overpowering executive, it is criticized that the counterweight of the parliament is not enough. However, responsibilities should not be blurred or weighed against one another. It is up to the government to implement fundamental decisions in everyday life. To do this, it has to be flexible to a certain extent, especially in times of crisis. In addition, it seems completely forgotten that the classic front position of parliament and government does not apply in Germany's political system. In contrast to the US presidentialism of checks and balances, the legislative and executive branches do not compete directly in Germany. The basic principle of the compatibility of government office and mandate leads in practice to the fact that the Chancellor and a large part of the ministers belong to the majority parliamentary groups themselves. The government and the parliamentary groups that support it therefore represent a unit of action. Within this, control takes place mainly informally, for example in the course of the parliamentary groups' working groups.

Opposite this close connection between the government and the parliamentary majority are the opposition factions, whose task it is to offer the population programmatic and personal government alternatives. They keep a close eye on the government and primarily use the control instruments available to them in accordance with the Bundestag rules of procedure. In the last electoral terms, the minor questions, written and oral questions were used most frequently.

* excluding the parliamentary summer breaks

Due to the parliamentary (re-) entry of the FDP and AfD after the federal election in 2017, the number of minor inquiries rose so much in the 19th electoral period that the Federal Chancellery in November 2019 in a letter to the parliamentary leaders of the parliamentary groups expressly asked for their reduction asked. Only in this way can a "high quality answer" still be taken into account. But what about the oppositional counterplay in Corona times? Did it suffer?

Government control of the opposition in Corona times

The corona virus also left its mark on the Bundestag and led to changes in parliamentary work. In addition to the lowering of the quorum for resolutions, a seating arrangement at a distance, a changed procedure for roll-call votes, and committee and parliamentary group meetings via video or telephone conferences continue to determine everyday parliamentary life. As part of the first wave of infections, agendas and meeting weeks were also shortened. The stability in the use of control instruments by the opposition, which is very similar to the use before Corona times, seems all the more astonishing.

From the beginning of February to the end of October 2020, the opposition factions put an average of 510 written questions, 264 small questions and 144 oral questions to the government every month. This means that the monthly average in the use of written and oral questions in Corona times rose slightly both compared to the same period in the previous year and compared to the 19th electoral period up to the outbreak of the virus (survey from the month following the formation of the government from April 2018 to the end of January 2020). When using small inquiries, a differentiated picture emerges: it increased by 5.6 percent compared to the monthly average of the 19th electoral period before Corona times, but decreased by 5.7 percent compared to the same period of the previous year. Regardless of which comparison period is perceived as more suitable, the data show that only minor deviations in usage behavior can be determined and accordingly the control activities carried out by the opposition were stable in Corona times.

Of course, not all questions deal with the government's corona measures and their consequences. That would also be worrying as the control of other issues would be neglected. Research into the keywords "COVID-19" and "Coronavirus" within the control documents indicates, however, that the opposition groups were increasingly taking up the pandemic: between February and October, a seventh of all small inquiries (14.3 percent), just under a quarter of all oral questions (24 percent) and a good quarter of all written questions (26.3 percent) depend on the government's handling of the coronavirus. The number of unreported cases is much higher because control activities such as small inquiries about "occupational safety in the home office", "abuse of short-time work benefits" or "results of the digitization of schools" have consequences of the corona pandemic, but not in the context of the keyword search showed up.

Plea for a differentiated parliamentary criticism

Critics who accuse the Bundestag of inadequate counterplay to the government or who suggest this measure with two different standards: An institutional front position between the legislature and the executive contradicts the logic of the parliamentary system of government. It is the opposition factions that publicly control the government by exposing weaknesses and pointing out alternatives. If you take a closer look at their control activities over the past few months, it becomes clear that they did not decrease compared to the times before the outbreak of the coronavirus. Numerous (inquiries) questions dealt with the pandemic in the narrower sense. And there are many more who take up the topic in a broader context. But that doesn't mean that everything is good as it is.

In fact, there is one point in which the Bundestag can speak of "self-dwelling": with regard to its external presentation. This applies above all to the opposition factions, which should communicate their control work to the public more clearly. It also affects every single member of parliament with regard to the way in which criticism of parliamentary processes and procedures is formulated. Institutional self-criticism must not create the impression that the fundamental and prominent importance of the Bundestag in combating the corona crisis is being questioned. That would be, to put it in the clear words of the CDU vice-parliamentary group chairman Thorsten Frei, "completely wrong".