All eyes were on Angela Merkel when she arrived on Tuesday for the first sitting of Germany’s new Bundestag. But for the first time in her 31-year political career, half spent as chancellor, Merkel was merely an onlooker from the VIP balcony.
Beneath her bespectacled gaze, members of post-war Germany’s 20th parliament honoured their constitutional obligation to meet a maximum of 30 days after the federal election.
After last month’s disaster for Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union, talks are under way for a new coalition government lead by the centre-left Social Democratic Party. Though no new government could be sworn in on Tuesday, as expected, the new parliament still managed to break several records.
Peculiarities of German election law means this Bundestag has swollen to 736 MPs, a quarter more than foreseen. That has created a rush for office space – and a visible crush at the back of the chamber for new members.
The end of the Merkel era – she decided not to run for a fifth term – coincides with a generational shift in the Bundestag. More than a third of MPs are new arrivals, nearly 100 are 35 or younger while the average age of parliamentarians has dropped to 47. While their number has risen by 37, women still comprise just a third of the total.
This is Germany’s most diverse parliament, too, with its first black female MP and its first two transgender women.
According to Germany’s post-war Basic Law, President Frank Walter Steinmeier will propose a candidate most likely to secure a majority as chancellor – this time SPD politician Olaf Scholz. Until then Merkel stays in office as a caretaker but is unlikely to make any major commitments – including at November’s UN climate change conference in Glasgow.
Departing Bundestag president Wolfgang Schäuble, a member of parliament, since 1972, was given a standing ovation before he departed the front podium.
To follow him the Bundestag elected SPD politician Bärbel Bas (53), an MP since 2009 with a focus on social policy. She is the third woman to lead the Bundestag and, in her first address, promised to “defend democracy against its enemies”.
“I will protect this parliament against attacks,” she said in a nod to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
“Hate and incitement are not opinions.”
As in the last term, the AfD protested against parliamentary procedure from the outset. Its candidate failed to be elected as Bundestag vice-president; similarly, ex-leader Alexander Gauland failed in his effort to be elected as Bundestag elder president, responsible for opening the first session.
Twenty-three of the AfD’s 83 MPs were excluded from the parliament floor – and followed proceedings from a visitor balcony above – after they declined to declare whether they had been tested for, were recovering from, or had been vaccinated against Covid-19.
After four years sitting next to the AfD in parliament, the liberal Free Democratic Party has secured its move to the centre of the parliamentary chamber, leaving CDU MPs cheek-by-jowl with the far-right party.
On Tuesday evening Steinmeier paid tribute to Merkel, saying she had “earned our country respect and even affection” in Europe and the world.
“Above all, however, you have won the trust of the citizens of our country,” he said. “Your decisions conveyed security and commitment.”
On Wednesday Steinmeier travels to Ireland for a state visit until Friday. After meeting President Michael D Higgins, and attending a state dinner on Wednesday evening, Steinmeier travels on to Galway and Limerick.