The freely elected People's Chamber

Video archives and official records.

Video archives and official records. (© German Bundestag)

The free elections to the People’s Chamber (Volkskammer) of the German Democratic Republic on 18 March 1990 completely transformed the character of that Parliament. Under the dictatorship of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), the People’s Chamber had been a sham parliament which, with one single exception, had always rubber-stamped the decisions of the state and party leaders until the peaceful revolution in the autumn of 1989. Now it transformed itself into a democratic parliament, whose members tackled a massive workload to carve out the path to the unification of Germany.

Transformation of the party system

Until the peaceful revolution, the People’s Chamber had contained not only members representing the state party of the GDR, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands - SED), and many of the mass-membership organisations dominated by the SED but also representatives of four parties known as the ‘bloc parties’, namely the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Democratic Farmers’ Party of Germany (DBD), the Liberal Democratic Party of Germany (LDPD) and the National Democratic Party of Germany (NDPD). The political transformation was accompanied by fundamental change in the party system in the GDR. Numerous new groups and parties, many of whose roots lay in the opposition movement of the pre-revolutionary period, were founded. The existing bloc parties declared themselves independent of the SED. Even the SED underwent a process of change. At the start of 1990 it renamed itself the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS).

Electoral law

The 400 Members of the People’s Chamber were elected on the basis of a system of proportional representation. The electoral area was divided into 15 constituencies. Each voter had one vote, which he or she could cast for a party list. Both parties and political associations were eligible to stand for election. There was no clause requiring parties or associations to obtain a particular percentage of the total vote in order to be eligible for parliamentary representation. Turnout was registered at 93.4%. The clear winners of the election, with 48% of the vote, were the three parties that had formed the Alliance for Germany, namely the CDU (East), Democratic Awakening (DA) and the German Social Union (DSU). They had campaigned on a platform of rapid monetary union and the earliest possible unification of Germany. Second place, with a 21.8% share of the vote, went to the Social Democrats - SPD (East) - who had been ahead in the opinion polls for a long time, followed by the PDS with 16.3% and the League of Free Democrats with 5.3%. Representatives of the popular protest movement such as Alliance 90 and the Green Party + Independent Women’s League (UFV), which had played a crucial role in the campaign for political change, won only 2.9% and 2% of the vote respectively. On 12 April 1990, Lothar de Maizière, the CDU’s candidate for the top post, was elected premier (Ministerpräsident) of the GDR by the People’s Chamber. He headed a coalition government formed by the parties of the Alliance for Germany, the League of Free Democrats and the SPD.

Parliament of the transition period

A total of 409 people were members of the first freely elected People’s Chamber of the GDR: the 400 who were returned in the elections of 18 March 1990 plus another nine members who entered the Volkskammer as first reserves on the party list when one of their party’s seats fell vacant. Not least among the reasons why the tenth People’s Chamber came to be regarded as a parliament of renewal was its social and demographic composition. Compared with other democratic parliaments, the People’s Chamber was a ‘young’ assembly. When it convened after the first democratic elections, its average age was 41.8 years. Only 3% of the members elected in March 1990 had belonged to the People’s Chamber during its ninth legislative term. The extent to which members of the Volkskammer had amassed political experience elsewhere is difficult to assess. Relevant studies suggest that considerably more members had been involved in local and party politics before 1989 than has generally been assumed hitherto. One thing is sure, however: in contrast to the GDR population, about 70% of whom had no church affiliation in 1990, only 15.6% of the  Members of the People’s Chamber - fewer than one in six - described themselves as atheists. Almost two thirds - 64.2% - stated that they belonged to either the Protestant or Catholic Church.

Parliamentary achievements

On 5 April 1990, when the tenth People’s Chamber held its constituent sitting in the Palace of the Republic and elected Sabine Bergmann-Pohl of the CDU as its President (Speaker), it inherited a parliamentary infrastructure that was entirely inadequate for its new function as the central legislative body. Until the peaceful revolution, the members of the People’s Chamber, who fulfilled their mandate on an honorary basis under the SED dictatorship, convened only twice or thrice a year for plenary sittings. A parliamentary administration to assist members in their work was therefore unnecessary, and so the administration was limited to those areas in which the People’s Chamber had representative duties to perform. Besides, only a very few function rooms were available to members in the Palace of the Republic. Under the SED regime, members had not been given offices of their own. In order to overcome this shortage of space, the freely elected People’s Chamber took over large areas of the building that housed the Central Committee of the SED. That building also became the temporary seat of Parliament from 19 September 1990, when the Palace of the Republic had to be closed because of excessive asbestos contamination.

Despite their adverse working conditions, the members of the tenth People’s Chamber got through a vast volume of work. The freely elected Volkskammer held a total of 38 sittings, which were broadcast on radio and televised almost in their entirety. In a legislative term that lasted only six months, it passed more than 150 laws and adopted about 100 resolutions. Among these were the new constitutional principles of the GDR, adopted on 17 June 1990, which repealed the Communist elements of the old Constitution, the Act of 21 June 1990 implementing the Treaty between the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany establishing a Monetary, Economic and Social Union and the Act of 20 September 1990 on the implementation of the Treaty between the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany on the Establishment of German Unity, which contained about 1,000 pages laying down detailed arrangements for the accession of the GDR to the Federal Republic of Germany.

At a special sitting on the night of 22 to 23 August 1990, the People’s Chamber decided, by 294 to 62 votes, with seven abstentions, that the GDR would accede to the area of application of the Basic Law in accordance with Article 23 of the Basic Law on 3 October 1990.