It is a symbolic battle, but the signal it sends is a worrying one. For months now, a discussion has raged in Germany about the Alterpräsident. Traditionally, the Alterpräsident or ‘Father of the House‘ is the oldest member of German Parliament (now Bundestag), who presides over Parliament during its first meeting, until a president has been elected. During his – mostly symbolic – presidency, the oldest member is supported by the youngest member of Parliament.

In March of 2017, however, under the presidency of Norbert Lammert (CDU) it was decided that after the 2017 elections, the Alterpräsident would henceforth be the longest-serving member of parliament, instead of the oldest. Officially presented as a way to “ensure the required experience” the move was branded by the media as an attempt to keep the AfD from getting it; the 77-year-old AfD MP Wilhelm von Gottberg would have gotten it otherwise.

Other tricks were tried, but failed. Hans-Christian Ströbele, a 78-year-old MP, was asked to stand for parliament again, even though he had announced his retirement. When questioned about what he thought about the subsequent change in protocol, he said that he believed it was against the AfD and that anyone who believed otherwise was

[naïve enough to be] fit for heaven.

The faction-leader of Die Linke, Sahra Wagenknecht, was also against the new arrangement. In an interview with Bild am Sonntag she said it played right into the hands of the AfD. The AfD seemed to agree, with Vice-President Gauland commenting:

The old parties must be in the grips of such fear for the AfD, that they have to stoop to such tricks.

On 24 October, during the first meeting of the parliamentary year, the AfD tabled a motion to revert the rules surrounding the Alterpräsident back to how they were. In his speech, Bernd Baumann said the following:

But ladies and gentlemen, since 1848 it has been the tradition in Germany that the first session of parliament is opened by the oldest member of parliament. A tradition reaching back to the Frankfurter Paulskirche, from Gustav Stresemann to Konrad Audenauer, from Brandt to Kohl, yes, until the first government [lead by] Merkel. All Reichstage, all Bundestage remained unswayed by the argument of ‘years in service.’ It is clear: in 150 years of parliamentary history, the rule regarding the Father of the House has been unbroken.
Unbroken? There is one exception. In 1933, Hermann Göring broke the rule because he wanted to exclude a political opponent, at that time Clara Zetkin. Do you want to tread in those footsteps? Will you turn your back on the line followed by the great German democrats – that’s what this proposal calls for.

Even the press, even the press, that is not in general a friend of ours, warned that this manoeuvre against the AfD is ‘transparant’. It spoke of ‘lex AfD’, Der Tagesspiegel spoke of ‘trickery’, Focus reasoned that the distinction did not shine a flattering light on parliamentary culture in Germany: how right it was, ladies and gentlemen! How big, I ask you, how big must the fear of the AfD be, when these kinds of manoeuvres are taken? For this reason I call on you: go back on your plan. Trust, like we do, in the traditions of German parliament and agree with our request.”

The office of Altpräsident might be symbolic, the willingness to break with parliamentary tradition for fear of allowing a political newcomer to fulfil is symbolic too. Is German democracy really as fragile as this?