East Germany Table of Contents
The unicameral People's Chamber is described in the Constitution as "the supreme organ of state power in the German Democratic Republic." According to the Constitution, the "principle of the sovereignty of the people" defines the role and function of the chamber. Before 1963 the People's Chamber consisted of 466 members; since then it has consisted of 500 deputies, elected for a 5-year term. Men outnumber women deputies by more than a factor of two. Although the deputies of the People's Chamber are nominally responsible to their constituencies, they are constitutionally directed to "fulfill their responsible tasks in the interest of and for the benefit of the entire population."
Article 55 of the Constitution directs the People's Chamber to elect a "Presidium for the duration of the legislative term." In 1987 the Presidium consisted of the president of the People's Chamber, a deputy president, three SED members, two LDPD members, a representative from each of the other three small parties, and two representatives from mass organizations. Sindermann was reelected in 1986 to his third five-year term as Presidium president. The membership of the chamber as a whole consists of representatives of the five political parties and members of four mass organizations: the FDGB; the Free German Youth (Freie Deutsche Jugend--FDJ); the Democratic Women's League of Germany (Demokratischer Frauenbund Deutschlands--DFD); and the East German Cultural League (Kulturbund der DDR). Because National Front policy has dispensed with competitive elections, a formal agreement assigns a fixed number of the 500 seats in the People's Chamber to each National Front organization according to a formula that has not varied since 1963.
As the dominant party, the SED is alloted 127 seats, which constitutes the largest bloc in the People's Chamber. The FDGB with sixty-eight seats ranks second. Each of the other political parties is allotted fifty-two seats, the FDJ forty, the DFD thirty-five, and the East German Cultural League twenty-two. Since many deputies of the four mass organizations are also party members, the SED's share of the chamber seats in effect exceeds 50 percent.
Under the Constitution, the People's Chamber is responsible for determining "the basic principles of government policy and implementing those policies." It is theoretically empowered to elect, supervise, and recall all members of the principal executive organs of the government: the Council of State, Council of Ministers, chairman of the National Defense Council, attorney general, and Supreme Court justices. In practice, however, these positions are filled by party organs outside the chamber's control. The chamber is also constitutionally empowered to determine administrative principles, supervise government activities, and approve or renounce state treaties. In the 1980s, the chamber generally has met only three or four times a year for one-day sessions and has rarely cast a vote that is not unanimous. In earlier years, the chamber met more frequently.
The Presidium of the People's Chamber is primarily a coordinating agent for chamber business. The fact that the chairmen of the parties and mass organizations do not occupy Presidium posts indicates its relatively insignificant function. The People's Chamber thus has comparatively less stature than the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union.
The People's Chamber also has standing committees--fifteen as of the ninth electoral period in 1986--with jurisdictions corresponding to major areas of public policy, such as national defense, foreign affairs, industry, labor, social policy, and culture. Although the size of each committee is not fixed, chamber deputies generally constitute the majority of each committee's membership. Additional members, however, may be drawn from outside the chamber. Each committee meets at least once a year to receive reports from SED officials, nominally satisfying the constitutional requirement that the government be accountable to the people.
In practice, the People's Chamber has been relegated to a subservient role, and its function in the legislative field has been largely pro forma, approving measures authorized by the supreme organs of the SED. The deputies are constitutionally required to hold regular consultations with their constituents, providing them with reports on legislative activities; to explain the policy of the socialist state to the citizens; and to listen to the latter's criticism and suggestions. Even though such sessions are rare in practice, the People's Chamber is a vital government institution because the function of mobilizing public support for the goals of the party and state is deemed important by the party.
Despite superficial similarities between the formal responsibilities of the chamber and those exercised by its parliamentary counterparts in Western Europe, the People's Chamber does not function as an independent entity. Unlike the West German Bundestag, for example, the People's Chamber does not permit the articulation and legislation of opposing views. The SED, however, does ensure that the political parties and mass organizations that play important roles in mobilizing public opinion are given representation in the chamber. The basic rule is that opportunities to participate in the Marxist-Leninist system issue from constitutional guarantees as well as from the ideology of the party itself, which emphasizes mass participation in an effort to legitimize its policies. In the People's Chamber, however, the "right and obligation" to participate is based on the SED's conception of how much representation each political party and mass organization deserves. The party specifies what share of workers, bureaucrats, and members of the intelligentsia should serve in the People's Chamber as well as the ratio of men to women. At election time, the National Front presents a voting list to the electorate that is designed to conform with SED guidelines.
The responsibilities of the chamber representatives can conventionally be divided into two distinct, though related, activities, both of which highlight the mobilization function of the People's Chamber. First, the deputies are expected to keep the population informed about major policy initiatives that have been presented by the SED to the People's Chamber for legislative action. This process, beginning with the decision of the party to put forward a legislative initiative and continuing through the actual publication and explanation of the law to the citizenry, theoretically requires continuous interaction between the deputies and the population. It is uncertain whether the flow of information and discussion is two way, or whether in fact the People's Chamber is simply required to propagandize on behalf of party policies with little concern for the various public interests and demands as specific pieces of legislation are processed through the various phases of drafting and modification during the five-year legislative cycle. Second, the chamber's fifteen standing committees give deputies the chance to inform themselves about the activities of the various ministries within the Council of Ministers. In fact, there are limited opportunities for committee members to specialize in one or more substantive policy areas. Committees also have the right to require the presence of ministers as well as heads of other state organs at their deliberations. Obviously such contacts should increase the members' knowledge and political insight and enable them to convey a more realistic image of the legislative world and the impact of policy to the constituency.
The actual degree of effectiveness of the People's Chamber is questionable. First, direct control over the operation of the People's Chamber by the SED is exercised through the network of overlapping memberships, which align the mass organizations to the party. For example, in 1985 the share of SED members among the mass organization deputies was as follows: sixty-one of the sixty-eight deputies of the FDGB were also members of the SED, as were thirty-six of the forty FDJ deputies, thirty-one of the thirty-five DFD deputies, and sixteen of the twenty-two deputies from the East German Cultural League deputies. Although it was highly unlikely, deputies holding dual memberships theoretically could support positions of their organizations opposed to SED policy. Second, there is little evidence to suggest that genuine debate on legislation takes place within the chamber, although it could be assumed that the differing opinions represented in the legislature would engender occasional conflict between different legislative groups. The scant evidence to date suggests that the national legislature affirms but does not debate policy. Third, the amount of time actually spent in session is not published by the legislature. Overall, these factors suggest that the People's Chamber performs largely ceremonial and opinion-mobilizing functions, which, albeit important, do not make the chamber a key policymaking institution.
Data as of July 1987
East Germany Table of Contents