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Sunday, 15 April 2012

The end of freedom of speech in the German parliament? Party discipline overruling MPs’ free mandate


A new adjustment of the Rules of Procedures of the German Parliament is currently causing wild trouble in German politics. A new regulation shall adjust the speaking rights of members of parliaments to take the floor during parliamentary debates. According to the new rule, MPs are only allowed to comment on legislative acts or to held a speech if they have been preliminary chosen by their political group to do so. Also, inquiries during a debate are no longer allowed.

The second reform act refers to the abolishing of the five-minute statements, which have been an essential part of parliamentary hearings. From now on, comments on governmental concepts and statements shall only be submitted in written form.

It sounds like a massive interference into the rights of the MPs in their work to contribute to parliamentary discussions. According to the German constitution, MPs are only responsible to their own conscience, without being obliged to the guidelines of their political parties. So, it is natural that various MPs are outraged about the current discussion on these changed rules of procedure.

On the other hand, there is a dilemma in the German party system regarding their MPs. The political groups represented in the parliament have a long tradition in driving their MPs to the overall party position in the event of votes on parliamentary acts. The German term is “Fraktionsdisziplin” (discipline within the group). Repeatedly, this “discipline” is also being interpreted as “Fraktionszwang” (group restraint), the party’s group leaders forcing their MPs to stick to the common party position and not to opt out.

With the new rules, parties can force their MPs to follow the overall party position and downsize the potential of individual MPs to oppose the party’s position. Some MPs already see the freedom of speech – and even democracy – within the parliament in danger, violating their constitutional right to follow their conscience and their own political mandate, as given through elections and by the vote of the people. The risk of party policy predominance is given, but not new in Germany.

So, are these new rules of procedure a measure to keep parliamentary discussions orderly and under control, to make the decision making process more efficient overall? Or are they just a massive consensus to the political parties to discipline their own MPs? It’s something in between, but the floor is wide open for constitutional discussions in and outside party politics.

The question remains, what prevails more: the MPs individual mandate given by the constitution, or party discipline and consensus? Critical voices within a party will go on existing and making their statements, it is just a matter how they will articulate themselves within the new rules.

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