The Future of Parliamentary Democracy

Parliamentarism is in decline – this claim has been a commonplace, not for ten years, but for at least one hundred years. The parliaments consisting of nineteenth century dignitaries were glorified as the heyday of parliamentarism as early as the 1920s, significantly at a time when the political systems of Europe had been democratised through the struggle for universal, equal, and free suffrage and many considered the resulting parliamentary democracy defective.

The radical anti-parliamentary critic of parliamentarism Carl Schmitt looked at modern mass democracies as the end of the bourgeois era. He considered parliamentarism with what he regarded its guiding principle: discussion and the public sphere (“Diskussion und Öffentlichkeit”), to be fundamentally incapable of making the necessary decisions and conveying the ‘true’ will of the people. His motto was: truth instead of majority, decision instead of discussion.

However, friends of parliamentarism have also diagnosed performance deficits. They lamented the declining competence of parliamentarians, growing party influence and lack of leadership, increasing corruption, insufficient responsiveness, and insufficient public resonance – resulting in parliaments suffering a rapid loss of prestige.

Parliaments proved to be guarantors of internal and external peace.

One hundred years have passed since then. In Europe, after the Second World War, as after the fall of the Iron Curtain, democratic parliaments were established quite naturally; they were the very heart of the new beginning following regimes of terror and totalitarianism. These parliaments proved to be guarantors of internal and external peace.

Yet, for some years now, renewed doubts have been raised as to whether the political order of constitutionally bound parliamentary democracy can overcome the political, social, economic, and technological challenges of the twenty-first century. And the results of the crises are perplexingly similar to those of the 1920s.

Externally induced problems are seen, above all, in the effects of European integration and globalisation. Internally, the lengthy process of decision-making, its high degree of compromise, and the ‘disempowerment’ of parliament as a whole are criticised by lobbyists and experts – in short, pointing to a lack of parliamentary problem-solving ability. Simultaneously, there are calls for more participation and transparency. This is in addition to the difficulties that have arisen for political parties as central institutions of parliamentary democracy, as modernisation and secularisation have led to massive changes in society. Developments marked by exponential pluralisation and individualism have stepped up alongside the once clear structure of interests, the relatively easy political organisability, and the subsequent relatively unproblematic legitimation of political decisions.

The EU and Parliamentarism

To trace the multiple transfers of powers from the national level of the Member States of the European Union (EU) to the supranational level of the EU institutions reaches beyond the scope of this article. While it is not true or is at least misleading that eighty per cent of German legislation stems from a ‘European impulse’, the fact is that almost all areas of agriculture are regulated by the EU, and also in economic policy, especially in questions of currency and monetary policy, more than three-quarters of legislation come from European procedures. Several other policy fields are partially communitised. It is also a fact that the Bundestag receives around four thousand submissions from the EU per election period, and its independence in legislation is limited to the directives, whereby the parliamentary room to manoeuvre here is also often narrow, since agreements by national governments in European legislation are commonly very detailed. The working capacity of the delegates and the staff available, as well as the usually tight deadlines, represent additional practical problems.

Even though the German Constitution has opened up new cooperation opportunities for the Bundestag (through the new Articles 23 and 45 in accordance with the Maastricht Treaty,) it remains true that:

The German Parliament, like the other national parliaments of the EU Member States, has objectively lost legislative power in areas of domestic political importance. These forfeitures of authority are only symbolically overcome by the fact that the Bundestag had to agree to them and, in the interest of European integration, did not show reluctance towards expressing agreement.

The transfer of competencies shrinks the legislative autonomy of the Bundestag. The EU Affairs Committee has been unable to compensate for this loss through the (at least retroactive) control of European legislation. By nature, the opposition is not given any actual influence on government in the European decision-making process, and – in contrast to the national context – influence is limited even for the parliamentary parties that carry the government, as the government can evade parliamentary attempts at co-regulation by citing supranational compromise requirements.

The German Parliament, like the other national parliaments of the EU Member States, has objectively lost legislative power in areas of domestic political importance

A perspective directed exclusively at German parliamentarism must therefore come to the conclusion that, through European integration, the Bundestag has lost influence in the shaping of national policy and therefore importance. This is the line of argument advocated by Euro-sceptical and Euro-hostile politicians holding responsible positions in Eastern and Central European country governments, which they use against further integration steps, and with which they refuse the necessary pro-European loyalty.

The political and economic gains achieved by membership of the EU are not the only elements that contradict an apodictic diagnosis of the loss of importance of the Bundestag. In fact, there are two additional things that have to be considered: first, the Bundestag, the Members of Parliament, and the parliamentary administration have by no means exhausted all opportunities to play a greater role in the European political arena by engagement in political processes, or through the establishment of new, or better use of existing, formal and informal procedures and networks. Second, one can speak of a ‘re-parliamentarisation of Europe’ (Andreas Maurer) – in general and with regards to the entire parliamentary structure – because the European Parliament has clearly gained functions and competencies in the course of the EU’s institutional development.

Importance must be placed on a coherent European classification of competencies that takes into account the requirements of multi-level parliamentarism.

Sustained efforts are therefore required to strengthen the European Parliament, not least so that citizens perceive it more clearly as a political actor that (co-)decides important matters in their lives. Equal importance must be placed on a coherent European classification of competencies that takes into account the requirements of multi-level parliamentarism and that, with a reasonably justified division of local, regional, national, and supranational responsibilities, satisfies the need for transparency and participation by citizens on the one hand, objective requirements of uniform rules on the other hand. Germany can offer a unique contribution by drawing on relevant experience: in the course of its development into a unitary federal state, the regional parliaments have lost considerable legislative powers, which have flowed back to the regional governments via necessary collaboration with the Bundesrat. On balance, such losses of parliamentary substance in favour of the executive power harm democratic legitimacy. Mistakes such as these should not be repeated while continuing to shape the EU institutions.

Globalisation and Parliamentarism

If the losses in influence on legislation and control in the case of the German regional state parliaments are largely absorbed by the Bundestag, and those of the Bundestag at least to a certain extent by the European Parliament – that is, by democratically legitimised parliamentary institutions – this is not true on the level of international negotiation and decision-making processes. One can only marginally speak of a parliamentarisation of international organisations, and not at all in the case of global policy networks, which are often praised as a major achievement in global ‘civic society’ involvement.

It is true that so far no formal legislative powers with direct binding effect for German or European citizens have been transferred to institutions outside the nation states or the EU. Nevertheless, the definitions and dispositions that are made at conferences and in negotiation rounds internationally (see for example actions on climate protection or on world trade conditions) unfold considerable actual commitment and concrete importance domestically. Parliamentarians are rarely involved in these processes; as a rule, it is representatives of national governments, and now also non- governmental organisations, that participate.

All in all, it can be stated that the fact that the world is, on the one hand, integrated and at the same time borderless in certain economic and political areas means that parliaments – and also the governments that are dependent on them within parliamentary democracies – are becoming less and less autonomous in their decisions. One can only marginally speak of a parliamentarisation of international organisations, and not at all in the case of global policy networks, which are o en praised as a major achievement in global ‘civic society’ involvement. Problems and the consequent need for regulation are emerging more and more often in supranational or global contexts and cannot be adequately resolved at a national level. National institutions no longer have the necessary tools and capacity for the hierarchical control of supranational and international players. This means that they can demonstrate no or only limited responsiveness to large parts of their citizenry or only pretend to do so. As a result, politics is losing credibility. Political decisions are perceived as unsatisfactory because citizens (can) no longer recognise which connection of representation and accountability still exists between their interests and the political actors, the tricky decision-making processes, and negotiated solutions. Further, the decisions themselves are not satisfactory, because the outlined supranational and international constraints do not allow for effective, thorough solutions at a national level alone.

Decision-making through Negotiation and the Role of the Bundestag

It is not only the developments on the supranational and international or global level towards decision-­making through negotiation that threaten the fulfilment of parliamentary functions and their importance for the establishment of democratic legitimacy. For quite some time, there have been assertions that the German Bundestag has been ‘disempowered’, and even that it ‘disempowered’ itself. In this view, the government negotiates directly with interest groups, announces specific legislation, or even promises it over the head of the Bundes­tag. In policy networks, the executive – the government and its ministerial bureaucracy – cooperates with representatives of the associations and seeks a ‘consensus’. In other words, a solution is sought that reconciles the government’s political goals with the positions of the economic and social forces concerned in order to ensure the acceptance and thus the feasibility of the political decision. The only thing left for the parliament to do is to give ‘the nod’ to the agreement. According to this criticism, it is no longer possible to correct the details. The compromised character and the bartered nature of such bargaining solutions do not allow any part of the package to be challenged without jeopardising it as a whole. Given the logic of the parliamentary system of government, the parliamentary majority does not even have the option of saying no, as this would disavow their own government and lead to a negative image in public. Thus, according to this assertion, the parliamentary ‘Yes’ is enforced without the Bundestag – and thereby without the general public – having been ‘substantially involved in the material decision-­making process’. In addition to the Federal Government, it is replaced by ‘selected negotiating partners’, “who are not included in the context of democratic legitimacy and responsibility of the German Constitution”. The Alliance for Jobs or the so-called nuclear consensus are cited as examples of such neo-corporatist or cooperative structures in the decision-making processes.

Furthermore, there is the influence of experts. At this point the misgivings about, or criticism of experts, claims that their involvement in the policies of the Federal Government does not primarily serve the purpose of better informing ministers and chancellors, but the goal is rather to find a consensus with their help, and to obtain broader social legitimacy by means of supposedly objective expertise. This development also marginalises the Bundestag, especially if informal advisory bodies are functionalised for the media and the Federal Government promises to meticulously implement their recommendations.

This assessment is apparently based on a misperception of the norms and practices of parliamentary democracy, where the overbalance of the government is desired and required by the system and is strictly dependent on its success. In parliamentarism, a government only lasts as long as it enjoys the trust of the parliamentary parties that support it. It is brought into office to lead politically and thus to ensure that the parliamentary majority is maintained at the next election because it offers convincing policies. In parliamentarism, a government only lasts as long as it enjoys the trust of the parliamentary parties that support it. This goal can only be achieved in close coordination and feedback processes between the Cabinet and the government-carrying parliamentary parties – in other words, in cooperation. However, in the interest of unanimity that the public expects as evidence of a functioning government, these processes understandably and generally take place behind closed doors. If the government wants or has to take a role without concrete back-up, its assertiveness primarily depends on whether it can correctly anticipate the political will of its majority.

This is particularly evident in the way in which the majority parties deal with the results of prominent expert commissions set up by the government. There can be no question of a seamless and unquestioning ratification, but rather there has always been a lot of arguing: between the party groups and their government, between the members of the coalition, between the opposition and the governmental majority, and between the different parties of the opposition anyway. These conflicts have not always taken place in the plenary sitting of the Bundestag. This lack of openness of disputes may be criticised, but it should be taken into account to gain a realistic assessment of parliament and its ‘deparliamentarisation’.

Parliamentarism Misconstrued

The Bundestag, its parliamentary parties, and members of parliament are not ratification machines for decisions made elsewhere. It will only leave this impression with those who limit their observations to the surface of (constitutionally) legally fixed structures and formally regulated procedures. Such judgements also seem to be based on a normative parliamentary concept from the nineteenth century. While Walter Bagehot, the clever scholar of British parliamentarism during this period, wrote as early as 1867 that the government was Parliament’s most important committee, and although parliamentary government has been practiced in the Federal Republic for almost seventy years, the so-called new dualism of parliamentary democracy is still not sufficiently understood: in it, the majority in parliament and ‘their’ government are closely interlinked, both in terms of personnel and through organisational structures in which participation and control take place – both formally and informally, but above all for the sake of majority – mainly out of the public eye. This unit of action, for which Winfried Steffani, a Nestor of German political science, coined the term ‘government majority’, is confronted by the opposition, who has the task of publicly expressing criticism and exercising control, as well as presenting alternative people and political content to the electorate. It is against this backdrop that examinations should take place about whether there are shortcomings or deficiencies in the relations between the Federal Government and the parliamentary parties supporting it, between the Bundestag and the Federal Government. Studies should also examine whether the degree of informality and the extent of bargaining endanger the credible democratic legitimisation of political decisions taken by the Bundestag.

Specialisation is essential for advancement within a parliamentary party, parliament, or the executive. Division of labour and hierarchy determine parliamentary practice.

In order for the governmental majority not to spill over in an ultimately counterproductive overbalance of the executive, for the government to involve parliamentary positions beforehand, or for the deputies to actually be involved in the negotiation and pre-decision processes, all of them must be serious partners. Studies on the professionalisation and professionalism of the Bundes­tag and its deputies cannot be elaborated here. In summary, it can be said that currently around four-fifths of the members of the Bundestag have completed higher education, that a differentiated range of occupations is represented (contrary to the popular opinion that it is a parliament of civil servants, lawyers, or teachers), and that the average time of incumbency is two and a half electoral periods. There are clear career patterns; specialisation is essential for advancement within a parliamentary party, parliament, or the executive. Division of labour and hierarchy determine parliamentary practice. In this way, the Bundestag is certified by research as being an industrious working parliament. Surveys also show that MPs are efficiency-oriented and, as legislators, prioritise the orderly execution of tasks.

There is a view that the Bundestag does not have enough information at its disposal, or the capacity to process it, and therefore there are demands for it to be ‘upgraded’ to be on par with the ministerial bureaucracy. The US Congress is often used as a comparison here, but this is the wrong benchmark to use and moreover once again reveals the mistaken notion of government and parliament being in opposition to each other. The Bundestag does not have to replace the specialists in office, but must be able to control them competently. In any case, the majority have the apparatus of ‘their’ government at their disposal to obtain information and generate initiatives; and opposition MPs often make use of the minister­ial bureaucracy in federal states where their respective party is involved in the government.

Legitimation and Representation as Core Duties of Parliament

The results – the output – of parliament are crucial for the legitimation of political action. For the citizens, ­results are the benchmark by which the success of representation can be measured immediately: are the decisions fair and just? Do they solve existing problems? Are they oriented towards the common good, or do they only serve the interests of individuals or certain groups in society? Do they benefit me personally? Until the 1980s, the great approval of the political system in the Federal Republic was fed by satisfaction with the output, with the concrete (legislative) achievements of the political institutions. The frustration with politics, parties, and politicians that has been growing since then. It is likely to continue mainly due to the view among citizens that the system’s efficiency has diminished, that problems – for example with the deepening and expansion of the EU, and with globalisation – have arisen that are difficult or impossible to control, and that insecurity – by now in all areas – has increased. Consequently, the representatives must continue to focus on ensuring satisfactory results of their activities – in short, the output must add up.

The results – the output – of parliament are crucial for the legitimation of political action.

To the extent that the Bundestag’s legitimation has been fragile for some time because of the legislative performance attributed to it, the focus of those represented has shifted to the decision-making processes and the actors themselves. Now, satisfaction with the political system also depends on input: how ‘inclusive’ are the decision-making processes, and who participates in them? How transparent are they? Are the interests of the citizens sufficiently addressed? How well do the deputies connect with their constituents? These aspects – namely the linkage function of parliaments, the connection between representatives and those represented, creating transparency for political decisions and their reasons, for conflict and compromise, the articulation of interests and their alignment with notions of common good – all this is as much an integral part of parliamentary representation as acting as a legislator. If – in the perception of those represented – these two dimensions of representation are permanently neglected or poorly met, the political order will risk losing legitimation.

The recommendations of ‘post-parliamentary’ formulas must be avoided: namely, that parliaments are restricted to a communicative function. The Bundestag as a working parliament with its professional structures is indeed an active (co-)shaper of policy; yet, political communication with the public has largely migrated away from the arena of parliament to that of the media. The recommendations of ‘post-parliamentary’ formulas must be avoided: namely, that parliaments are restricted to a communicative function. Limiting the Bundestag to “the representation and debating of social divergences of interests in the public domain”, as proposed by a post-parliamentary institutional design, would indeed mean its disempowerment and would degrade parliament to being the mouthpiece of small decision circles. These circles, in the case of executive participants, at least would be indirectly democratically legitimised, but in the case of lobbyists, experts, and those ‘affected’, would not be accountable towards, let alone be punish­able for their actions by the electorate. Talking and making decisions should not be decoupled from each other.

As a result of the changes in the outlined external conditions for the performance of politics, the demands on the representatives and how they are judged have changed considerably. This is also caused by massive social changes and their impact on the parties as the key players in the political system.

Parties as Links and Places of Learning

In the first decades of the Federal Republic, long-­entrenched socio-economic and socio-cultural lines of conflict contributed to the predictability and stability of political conditions. They had led to the formation of a party system that soon consisted of only three – or two and a half – parties. They integrated into the political system an electorate whose interests were primarily determined by their social background or their church affiliation. Fortunately for the democratic development of West Germany, the parties acted responsibly: they found the right balance between sufficiently clientelist advocacy on the one hand, and enough orientation towards the common good and willingness to compromise with the ‘other side’ on the other hand. This balance gave the vast majority of citizens the growing conviction that the representative parliamentary democracy could produce and guarantee internal and external peace.

While the voters’ stable orientations and permanent identification with the parties have not disappeared, they are found in fewer and fewer people. Where they are found, they have become weaker and more susceptible to change. The interests of the individual – at least in the highly developed (post-)industrial countries of the Western world – are seldom determined by their socio-economic or socio-cultural background alone. The individual is now the bearer of a variety of interests that enjoy different priority over time, that can change, and that can also lead to inner contradictions and incompatibilities. Consequently, political attitudes and behaviour change. If in the past, the parties in the Federal Republic, especially the two major parties, used to have a large core constituency, which they reliably provided with confidence in their leadership, volatile voters dominate the picture today. Their attentiveness to issues and evaluation of their importance changes (mostly as directed by the media); they are more opinionated, but their judgment is not necessarily more reliable – more information is not synonymous with more in-depth knowledge. They are more willing to act on political decisions if they are specifically affected, but less willing to commit themselves generally or for the long term.

These developments pose major problems for the parties – and with them, for representative parliamentary democracy itself.

Membership Loss in the Parties

One particular challenge is that the membership figures of parties have almost halved over the last twenty-five years. At the end of 1989, 3.6 per cent of the eligible population belonged to one of the parties represented in the Bundestag. At the end of 2016, this figure was only 1.7 per cent. This has two serious consequences:

On the one hand, parties’ roots in society become much weaker, which reduces their opportunities for the appropriate articulation of interests and responsiveness. Dissatisfaction with politics and its actors is growing, as is the risk of creating suspicion towards ‘those up there’, and ultimately of an anti-establishment attitude susceptible to populism. In the longer term, representation gaps are created, which promotes the emergence of new parties, fragments the party system, and hinders the formation of stable parliamentary majorities.

Volatile voters dominate the picture today. Their attentiveness to issues and evaluation of their importance changes (mostly as directed by the media); they are more opinionated, but their judgment is not necessarily more reliable.

On the other hand, the reservoir from which the parties have so far been able to draw staff for the appointment to offices and mandates at all levels of the political system is reduced. For parliaments in the states, the Bundestag and the European Parliament alone, this amounts to approximately twenty-six hundred people. Filling these positions with people who have certain characteristics, and the knowledge and abilities needed in politics, has until now been up to the parties. They are the place of learning where people are taught that in democracy, politics means, above all, continually creating majorities for what is recognised as right in each respective case, in other words: putting up with conflicts and forging compromises. Significantly reduced party membership means that the pool of suitable and willing candidates for mandates and offices is shrinking and/or that this pool is becoming more selective.

It is predicted that the membership-based parties will not disappear, but will stabilise at a sharply lower level. However, there are expectations that the criticism of the monopoly of the parties to recruit the political elite and to determine the direction of the programme and content will increase.

It is therefore also not surprising that for quite some time, there have been demands for the party-mediated democratic parliamentary decision-making mechanisms to be supplemented by so-called direct democratic instruments. One might even in theory go so far as to ask whether the idea and the institution of parliamentary representation are at all suitable and functional for today’s society.

There are expectations that the criticism of the monopoly of the parties will increase.

The current loss of function of the Bundestag due to European integration and de-parliamentarisation through the de facto transfer of decision-making processes to international committees and networks cannot be overlooked. Another development that cannot be overlooked is the fascination elicited by authoritarian regimes, which many view as more successful because they seem faster and more thorough in their decisions. It is therefore imperative to find ways to ensure the continued existence of democratic legitimisation as the core idea and practice of our political system.

Proposals aimed at restricting parliamentary participation in decisions through negotiations, or even their control by parliaments in favour of a higher level of efficiency in governance, must be countered: how should the resulting deficit be made up for in democratic legitimacy? Civic society actors and ‘the people’ who decide on factual issues – often cited in this context – are not a substitute. They are the self-proclaimed ‘affected population’ that is only sporadically active. And even if mature citizens must be considered a prerequisite for democracy, democracy must first create them and continue to create them. What is happening with this maturity?

How do things stand in terms of justice and orientation towards the common good when more and more diverse and complex interests have to be balanced out in the nation state and beyond its borders? Dichotomous decision constellations and the unconditional use of a majority once obtained do not fit into the often fractured interests, the extended options for behaviour and action, and transformed participation claims of the individual in twenty-first century society. Therefore, one may discuss how to shape the details of the relationship between parliamentary decision-making and civic participation differently. But if democracy is to succeed in the future, there is in principle no alternative to accountable representatives equipped with a generalised and sanctionable mandate, and to parliaments responsible for the final, universal decisions.


How We Must Act

  • The deputies of the German Bundestag must take European politics more seriously, and spend more time and effort on better exploiting the existing possibilities – formal as well as informal – for influencing the European decision-making and legislative processes than they have until now.
  • The powers of participation and decision-making in multi-level parliamentarism – from the local and regional to the national and European level – should be redefined into a coherent system of competencies that takes into account the requirements of legislative effectiveness as well as the changed expectations of citizens for better participation and transparency.
  • The Bundestag must not surrender to the outsourcing of politics to global committees and networks. Instead, its deputies – in particular, those of the ­governmental majority – have to put themselves ­forward as being politically and professionally ­competent partners in such structures.
  • The skills required for making political decisions include assimilating interests from society, processing them professionally, and balancing them appropriately in the interests of the common good. These skills must continue to exist in the German Bundestag. The parties urgently need to mobilise more citizens to join them. They are the place for learning the ‘political business’ in democracy and the indispensable basis for recruiting political staff in parliaments at all levels.

Prof. Dr. Suzanne S. Schüttemeyer (65) is Professor of Government and Policy Research at the Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, Editor-in-chief of the Zeitschrift für Parlamentfragen (ZParl) [Journal of Parliamentary Affairs], Founding Director of the Institute for Parliamentary Research (IParl) of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Demokratie [Foundation for Science and Democracy], and Recipient of the German Bundestag ­Science Prize.