Lazy Luddite Log

24.9.15

Twisted Chamber

As a politics nerd I have always been interested in the different designs of representative institutions. In this post I will discuss one of the strangest and most deceptive - the parliament of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) that existed from the late 40s till the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I have a personal connection to this topic in that my father came from East Germany (common name for the GDR) but it is intriguing in its own right as a twisted imitation of more democratic institutions. But what is democracy?

Some criticize our own polity as merely a 'sham' democracy but I think it is more realistic to say there are different forms and degrees of democracy. The participatory democracy of some ancient Greek city-states may have inspired them but the concept has been adapted to different cultures and societal conditions. Modern mass society is a very different thing from a community of a few thousand. Representation becomes necessary for all but the smallest of groups and some kinds of representation work better than others. There have always been flaws in design and implementation. There have always been distortions due to human fallibility. And in a model with any longevity there will be odd historic relics (for instance some of the senators in the anachronistic and elitist Irish Senate are elected by university graduates). However there are some basic ways in which to assess the democratic degree of a design. Here are two.

One is to consider the number of links or layers between citizens and governors. In Australia there are basically two - one link from the voter to the parliamentarian and another link from the parliamentarian to the cabinet ministers they choose from among them. This basic concept is replicated at every level of government. Contrast this with the number of layers in (say) the extinct Soviet Union - citizens voted for local representatives who in turn elected province-level representatives who in turn elected republic-level representatives and so on. It is a layer cake with as many connections between citizen and executive power as there are levels of government. Soviet citizens had elections but they were far removed form those in power nationally.

The other way is to look at the number of political parties involved in a polity. In the Soviet Union all those representatives came from the one political party. This contrasts hugely with our parliamentary model with its allowance of freely formed parties. One response to my comparison is to note that even in a one-party regime a variety of perspectives can be accommodated in the form of factions. Another is to say that the many parties in our polity all conform to the same capitalist ethos. But parties are organizations that take on a life and agenda of their own and evidence of that resides in the history of the GDR.

The GDR was one of many satellite states of the Soviet Union and the tendency across the Eastern Bloc was to replicate Soviet institutions. There were exceptions however and the GDR was a prominent case of a one-party regime pretending to be a multi-party one. I was told this long ago and it always puzzled me. How exactly would that work? I put my curiosity at the back of my mind till I saw a book entitled The German Democratic Republic by Peter Grieder and I purchased it. It referred to the multi-party phenomenon but never described it and I then remembered that I now have the Internet. Naturally Wikipedia told me what I needed to know. So how do you rig a multi-party parliament in an effective one-party regime? This is how...

The Volkskammer (Peoples Chamber) had 127 members from the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Incidentally the SED was the result of a forced takeover of the larger democratic socialist party by the smaller communist party in East Germany following World War II. This was the ruling party of the GDR and yet lacked a majority in the 500-member Volkskammer.

Next came the four other political parties with 52 members each. These parties represented different strands of politics in German society - liberal, conservative, communitarian and agrarian respectively. They originated in authentic movements but were pressured and cajoled into a compliance with the SED as part of a National Front. They pretty much always voted with the SED but even if they behaved independently it would be rare for those four to all agree in opposition to the ruling party. Besides which there were also a number of demographic representative groups in the Volkskammer - 68 members of the labour union federation, 40 members of the ruling party youth wing, 35 members of the national representative body for women, and 22 members of a national cultural association. As soon as you consider these other groups you can see how the numbers were rigged so that the ruling party could pick-and-choose its partners in any given vote. Except remember that was rarely even an issue because all these groups were conditioned to do and say the same things in support of the SED.

How exactly do you run elections that result in these same parliamentary numbers every time? Well each voter is given one ballot paper. On that paper is listed all the proposed Volkskammer members across the various groups. The role of the voter is simply to say yay or nay to the list and that is it. You wonder why they even bother. Surely this is the most transparent bullshit. But this is the thinking of someone who has always enjoyed multi-party parliamentary democracy. If you had been living under the Nazis for over a decade and survived the devastation of World War II then the GDR model may well have seemed fantastic.

The other thing to consider was the proximity of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the temptation West Germany represented for East Germans. I can well imagine that replicating a semblance of what they had over the border helped to satisfy citizens and keep them home. East Germany had a huge problem with defecting workers and anything that could curb that was worth a try. The Volkskammer design shows both shrewdness and a degree of desperation. These were key ingredients of the Cold War atmosphere.

I was saying that parties have an agenda of their own and once the Berlin Wall came down the onetime 'cringing lapdogs' to the ruling party in the GDR suddenly showed they had an ideological memory and began promoting those original values in the re-united Germany. Each of those parties participated in free elections and eventually merged with other parties across the augmented FRG. Authentic ideological diversity had been hibernating for decades in a facade designed to imitate it. Differences of opinion will find a way to survive till the day that oppression falters.

There are other deliberately deceptive models of representation in history and I may have to look at others in future. The 'tricameral' parliament of South Africa in the dying days of Apartheid was a doozy (and incidentally very different from the Israeli Knesset despite what some simplistic campaigns imply). More generally ones that play with demographic rather than geographic representation (such as the 'functional constituency' concept in Hong Kong) are also interesting. For now however I will look at the comparisons made and feel lucky at the kind of parliaments I get to vote for.

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