Bundestag Kuppel
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Who is the sovereign?

By Wolfgang Merkel

No one has given as pithy an answer to this question as the brilliant and controversial constitutional theorist Carl Schmitt: “Sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception,” he wrote in 1922 (Political Theology).  Schmitt unmistakably takes after his “teacher” Thomas Hobbes.  In Hobbes’ Leviathan (1655), the overriding imperative is to prevent civil war, the battle of all against all.  The retention of power, domestic peace, and legitimization all link up here.  In Europe and the democratic world today, there is no threat of civil war, even as the French president makes use of martial rhetoric: “Nous sommes en guerre!”  War has always strengthened the executive branch of the state and, in particular, granted special powers to the presidency vis-à-vis the governed.

In democracies, the people is the sovereign.  It is only through legitimization via elections that legislative sovereignty is transferred to parliament.  The parliament, as the second-order sovereign, elects the executive.  Through these two delegatory steps, democratic governments in parliamentary regimes can only lay claim to a derived form of sovereignty.  In terms of democratic theory, one could refer to the government as a third-order democratic actor.  This holds for day-to-day politics as well as time-consuming decision-making processes.  For war (Macron), pandemics (WHO), or “the catastrophe” (Söder, prime minister of Bavaria), this apparently no longer holds.  The hour of the executive has struck.  The third-order democratic actor has taken over the helm of the state.  The question is: is this constitutionally legal and democratically legitimate? Let`s look at the example of Germany.

The basic question, in particular, is whether the German federal and state governments can decide on such fundamental restrictions of basic rights such as freedom of assembly, of movement, or freedom of profession and enterprise.  In almost inconspicuous fashion, the third sentence in Article 2, Paragraph 2 of the Basic Law allows for such a restriction:

(2) Every person shall have the right to life and physical integrity. Freedom of the person shall be inviolable. These rights may be interfered with only pursuant to a law.

In the Covid-19 pandemic, this law is called the “Law for the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases to Humans”.  Normatively, the law is a trivial one compared to the basic rights that it restricts.  The longer the restriction of basic rights goes on, the thinner the legal basis becomes: what then becomes necessary is a more substantive, preferably a constitutional norm or a speedy legitimization via parliament. The first does not exist in the German Basis Law, the second one is problematic since it degrades parliament to a non-deliberative rubber stamp institution. The German government is acting on a rather thin legal base.

This holds a forteriori for the question of democratic legitimacy.  The emergency powers exercised at the federal and state levels can only be justified with reference to averting imminent catastrophe.  It is, however, a behavioralist misunderstanding to think that it is possible to legitimize the current measures simply through the support of the population as measured in opinion polls.  With this logic, a whole range of authoritarian forms of government would be justified, from Putin to Orbán and Kaczyński or even the Nazi regime in 1936.  A complete democratic justification calls for a twofold legitimization: the majority support of the population (empirical legitimization) and substantive legitimization through the democratic constitution (normative legitimization) (see also: Kneip, Merkel, Weßels (Eds) Legitimitätskrise? Zur Lage der Demokratie in Deutschland, Springer 2020).

Here, the principle of proportionality comes into play.  Specifically, this means: the massive restriction of basic rights has to be appropriate, necessary, and proportionate.  Is this the case?  It is certainly not proportionate if one looks only at the number of infections and deaths in Germany.  If this were the case, the restrictions of basic rights would have been necessary during the influenza outbreak in the winter of 2017-18 with over 25,000 deaths.  The fundamental restrictions are proportionate only if one looks at them from the perspective of an imminent worst-case scenario with tens of thousands of deaths.  This has not been ruled out by virologists and epidemiologists.  Only this kind of expectation of looming catastrophe would make it possible to justify the current emergency measures.

Yet it is not science that can decide this question.  Science cannot be seen as a fourth order sovereign, although all friends of expertocratic governance have a preference for. Science has epistemic, but not democratic legitimacy.  Even “epistemic evidence-based policymaking” requires the decision to be taken by democratically legitimized representatives and nobody else. 

The executive alone cannot take on this role of decision-maker for an extended period.  The longer the restriction of basic rights goes on, the more the second-order sovereign, the parliament, has to come back into the picture.  If this does not happen, norm-based representative democracy is in danger of lurching into naked decisionism.  Since the 1970s, democracies have only rarely disappeared via armed coups; instead, they have eroded and died slow deaths (Levitsky & Ziblatt 2018).  Germany is not Hungary, Merkel not Orban. But German Democracy too, is by no means fully immune to slow de-parliamentarization and de-liberalization of its way of governance. Watchfulness is the citizen`s first obligation.



1 April 2020/HW

Portrait of Wolfgang Merkel
David Ausserhofer

Wolfgang Merkel is Professor Emeritus and the former director of the Democracy and Democratization research unit.

Further Reading


Corona and fundamental rights: Questions and answers, compiled by the Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte GFF [in German].

The current issue of WZB-Mitteilungen deals with the legitimacy of political systems [in German].

Further Listening

Corona and the strong state - How immune is democracy? On March 20, 2020, Andreas Maurer, Armin Nassehi, Andrea Römmele and Claus Heinrich debated at the SWR2 Forum [in German].