BERLIN — One month after the election that ended Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reign, the new German parliament convened for the first time Tuesday to approve a generational change in leadership, from Conservative veteran Wolfgang Schäuble to Social Democrat Bärbel Bas.
Three of the six parties represented in the Bundestag are still trying to form a coalition government under incumbent Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who like Bas is a member of the Social Democratic Party, the winner of the September 26 vote.
Schäuble, parliament’s longest-serving member and its president since 2017, presided over the session to pick his successor in Bas, a dark horse whose nomination last week took many by surprise.
In his final speech as president — with Merkel in attendance as guest of honor — Schäuble appealed for respect for core democratic principles including minority representation and separation of powers, and called on lawmakers to live up to their responsibilities.
“Those who equate representation with representativity [in parliament] will find a plethora of glaring deviations in professional, in regional, in cultural or religious terms, and will foster the misconception that social groups can only be represented by their own members,” Schäuble said.
He also told lawmakers not to let the judicial branch infringe on the legislative one. “It is up to us how far we allow our leeway as legislators to be restricted by jurisdiction that at times at least goes to the limits of its mandate,” he said.
Earlier this year, Germany’s highest court ruled that the climate protection law passed in 2019 was partly unconstitutional, forcing Merkel’s government to make the law more ambitious in fighting carbon emissions.
Likely addressing climate strikers, Schäuble said that “those who are disappointed by the slow pace of democratic processes with regard to climate change” should be reminded that it can be a “tough struggle” to find majorities. “Scientific knowledge alone is not politics — and certainly not [politics based on a] democratic majority,” he said, adding that “those who set goals and means in absolute terms set them against the democratic principle.”
Bas replaces Schäuble
After ending his speech with a reminder that “the dignity of this House depends on the behavior of each and every one of us,” Schäuble was honored with standing ovations, including even by some lawmakers from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
As expected, Bas was elected with an overwhelming majority of 576 votes, with 90 against and 58 abstentions. The process took unusually long, given that the Bundestag has grown once again to 736 members, prompting both Schäuble and Bas to demand “electoral reform worthy of the name.”
In her introductory speech, Bas called on her colleagues to represent everyone in Germany, including those who do not speak German and those too busy making ends meet to be visible in civil society, whether because they are raising children or caring for the elderly.
“They all have interests, too, legitimate interests, and they have little opportunity to make their voices heard,” she said.
Bas also prepared the parliament for a particularly difficult legislative period with some tough topics on the agenda. “Many big controversial issues lie ahead of us … especially the restructuring of the economy with the goal of achieving climate neutrality,” she said.
Like her predecessor, Bas also insisted that conduct in the Bundestag remain civilized at all times. “Hate and agitation are not an opinion,” she said, vowing to “protect this parliament from attacks and defend democracy against its enemies.”
Despite the appeals to decency, the session of parliament began with a dispute over who should lead it. Schäuble was chosen by virtue of his age, although he is one and a half years younger than Alexander Gauland of the AfD, the Bundestag’s oldest member. Parliament’s refusal to give Gauland the honor angered the AfD, with their whip Bernd Baumann calling it a “disparagement of millions of voters … and a derision of democracy.”
But in the almost celebratory atmosphere, few MPs were listening to democracy’s detractors. “Despite all the disputes, conflicts and crises, we can still be glad and proud that we live in a stable and vibrant democracy,” said Bas as the legislature’s new leader.