After a vote on a parliamentary committee of enquiry into the NSU murders, Green Party MP Miriam Block lost all political posts overnight. KOPFZEILE investigates what lies behind the accusation of a lack of factional discipline and what the Hamburg Greens’ understanding of factional discipline is.
by Lasse von Feder and Lisa Kahl
Between 2000 and 2007, the right-wing terrorist group National Socialist Underground (NSU) murdered ten people, including Süleyman Taşköprü in Hamburg. The crimes have not been fully solved to this day. Particularly the role of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, given that the investigation files were supposed to remain under lock and key for 120 years. However, the journalist Jan Böhmermann published these files on a website set up especially for this purpose. In eight of the nine federal states where the NSU killed people, parliamentary committees (PUA) have been appointed to investigate the murder series. Now, at the request of the Left Party, Hamburg has also voted on this – with far-reaching consequences for the politician Miriam Block.
According to Article 44 of the German Basic Law, the German Bundestag can and must set up a committee of enquiry at the request of a quarter of its members. This committee mainly investigates possible maladministration in government and administration and possible misconduct by politicians. Committees of enquiry can hear witnesses and experts and have other investigations carried out by courts and administrative authorities. The committee of enquiry summarises the result in a report to the plenum.
On April 13, the parties in the Hamburg state parliament voted on whether there should be such a parliamentary committee of enquiry. The SPD’s counter-proposal: a “scientific assessment” of what happened. This may not sound like a big difference, but in practice it means that the investigators would not have access to the files of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. The role played by the latter is dubious at the very least. The president of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Thomas Haldenwang, himself spoke of “glaring errors” in an interview with ZDF.No wonder, then, that the files should actually remain under lock and key.
However, after the Green Party MP Miriam Block voted for a parliamentary enquiry committee, also at the request of the relatives, her party colleagues summarily relieved her of all her offices. The accusation: Breach of party discipline
Factional discipline means the uniform voting of all members of a faction in a parliament. In democracies, strict factional discipline is generally forbidden, since MPs are only bound by their conscience when making decisions, not by their own party and not by the voters. Nevertheless, a certain factional discipline is often necessary in everyday politics. In order to achieve their goals, as many members of a parliamentary group as possible must vote together in favour of their interests. However, the call for a unified vote does not apply to questions of political principle (deployment of the Bundeswehr) or to ethical and moral questions (vote on assisted suicide in Germany).
Block, who worked as the science and higher education policy spokesperson for the Green Party and who was a member of the science committee and the inner committee, wrote on Twitter: “I cannot […] reconcile it with my conscience to reject the motion of the left-wing parliamentary group as long as we do not find an alternative way for serious clarification”.
In doing so, Block also spells out what the limits of factional discipline are. Because in modern democracies there is basically no factional coercion. Members of parliament are only bound by their own conscience when making decisions, neither by their party nor by the voters. Of course, a certain degree of factional discipline is indispensable for parties. After all, they want to use as many votes as possible to push through their interests. This is even more true for governing parties such as the Red-Green coalition in the Hanseatic city. In the worst case, a lack of factional discipline in government can lead to political instability.
However, it is highly doubtful whether this applies to the case of Miriam Block. Can a dissenting vote really damage the reputation of the SPD-led coalition? Hardly!
Besides, as it says on the website of the Federal Agency for Civic Education, there are decisions in democracies where the call for a unified vote is not applicable: ethical-moral questions like the vote on the reform of euthanasia or fundamental political decisions like a deployment of the Bundeswehr.
The fact that Block, as a convinced anti-fascist, votes for a PUA and not for a toothless “scientific investigation” of the racist murders, can easily be recognised as a fundamental political decision. Factional coercion must not apply here!
The concept of factional discipline is also fuelling doubts elsewhere about the proportionality of the decision of the 22 Green MPs. Lorenzen, the parliamentary party leader of the Greens, said in a statement that Block had disregarded common agreements and violated “shared rules of communication”. This sounds as though the parliamentary party executive wants to end the inner-party discourse on the issue. They don’t want to talk back, because that would damage the unity of the parliamentary group.
Yet even a valid parliamentary group discipline grants MPs the right of public dissent. In short, if a deputy has doubts about certain decisions, he or she may express them publicly. Under no circumstances should one be punished for doing so.
After these objections, it is hopefully obvious: the Greens have clearly overshot the mark with their decision to remove Block from their parliamentary groups. The scope of their punishment seems completely disproportionate and reveals a strange understanding of factional discipline. Here, one can rightly speak of factional coercion, because there is a violent attempt to rally the MPs behind the party line.
Instead of silencing critical voices within their own party, the Hamburg Greens should deal with them. Then the Green People’s Party will no longer be so quickly embarrassed by being called “spineless“. The essence of democracy is conflict, not (enforced) consensus.