Thursday, October 27, 2011

How Sheep Influence the German Government

27 September 2011

This is a photo of the interior of the Reichstag, where the Bundestag meets. It is a very open and airy space. The architect designed the interior of the building specifically to convey the importance of transparency: visitors can easily see members of Parliament -- and members of Parliament can easily see the citizens to whom they are responsible! The contrast between the modern interior and historic exterior is striking, yet not stark. Like the country itself, the building is a blend of old and new. In fact, the foundations of the Reichstag still rest on the original oak piles that were driven when construction began in the 1890s. Now, 12 massive concrete pillars also serve to support the new glass cupola (which weighs 1200 tons!). This cupola is the crowning modern addition to the Reichstag, that allows light in to shine upon the meeting room of the Bundestag!

The parties are seated from most conservative on the right, to the communists on the far left. The Liberals (conservative) have 93 seats, the Christian Democrats (the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel) have 239 seats, the Greens have 68 seats, the Socialists have 146 seats, and Die Linke (the communists) have 76 seats. Voting is typically done by a show of hands or by standing up. With so many members, however, this can sometimes be difficult to count quickly to reach a conclusion. Thus, a traditional method called "Hammelsprung" is used.

Hammelsprung means "wethers leap" and it appeals to my love of sheep! In the old Reichstag, there was a painting of the Greek mythological being Cyclops counting his sheep as they head to pasture. This painting hung above the doorway, and its name came to refer to the style of voting by which members of Parliament would all exit the chamber and then re-enter to vote. In the Bundestag, there are three doors: one for ayes, one for nos, and one for abstentions. As members re-enter the chamber, secretaries count the exit number that pass through each door. Thus, if it wasn't for sheep, the German parliament wouldn't function! (Maybe a slight exaggeration, but a compliment from this farm girl!)

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