“Fraktiounszwang”: How Luxembourgish MPs let themselves be bullied into following the party line

“Who’s in favour? Who’s against? Who abstains?” The questions asked by parliamentary chairman Mars Di Bartolomeo (LSAP) aren’t that different from those of any other parliament in Europe. Yet Luxembourg is different, if only due to its size. Indeed, any legislature that could fit into your average pizzeria is unquestionably small. But, with only 60 members in the Chamber of Deputies (Chambre des Députés), it’s relatively easy to keep track of things.

Whenever Di Bartolomeo asks these questions regarding votes, the results are generally predictable. MPs traditionally vote according to party line, which is previously agreed in faction meetings. Most votes in parliament are agreed unanimously because they are for purely procedural, non-contentious reports or they are to approve an EU directive. On general government policy, the fault lines within the Chamber usually fall between the governing parties and the opposition. Only in rare circumstances do parties grant their MPs the so-called “free vote”, whereby the party agrees not to meddle in the decision of the individual member. This has previously happened on contentious topics such as the indoor smoking ban or the updated law on abortion. In general, however, MPs are subject to what is known as the Fraktiounszwang, or the “obligation to follow the party line”.

It’s peculiar that a country with such an individualised election campaign find itself with politicians who do not stand up to their parties when it comes to their own beliefs. Despite the intentions of the political parties, the Constitution is clear about the independence of every member of the house. Article 50 states: “The Chamber of Deputies represents the country. The deputies vote without referring to their constituents and can act in the general interest of the Grand Duchy.” If members are independent of their constituents, meaning their own voters, then they cannot be forced into abiding by the rules of their own parties.

And yet, you’re more likely to see politicians leave their parties – hanging onto their seats as independents – than vote against party lines. Recent illustrations of this phenomena include Jacques-Yves Henckes and Dr Jean Colombera, both former members of the Alternative Democratic Party (ADR) who left the party for being too “far right” yet kept their seats in the Chamber as independents until the end of their terms.

The parties hold sway over lawmakers because they provide them with administrative help and, most important, the nomination to be a candidate for parliament. Without that nomination, the only options would-be MPs have is to stand for election on their own – which essentially never happens – or to launch their own political movements, which has proven something of a challenge, to say the least.

Compare that with the legislatures of the Bundestag, the Assemblée Nationale or the House of Commons, where you can observe, at times, governments begging their own parties for a sufficient mandate to implement a policy. In these houses, members have taken the responsibility of voting their conscience, which is very often the constitutional position – and for good reason. If a member were, in principle, not elected on a manifesto but on the whim of his constituents or the volatility of his own party, voters would have no idea what they were getting.

This is why the Grand Duchy’s Chamber of Deputies is seen as being more a house of pragmatists than true representatives – once the campaign is over, they all fall into line. People who are more accustomed with party infighting and deep-rooted ideological debates may find Luxembourg’s politics rather tame.


This article was first published by the Luxembourg Times.

Pictures are Creative Commons.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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