German court scraps hurdle for small parties in EU vote

Germany's top court Wednesday struck down a three-percent electoral threshold for political parties to win European Parliament seats in a move welcomed by fringe groups including a far-right party.

The decision followed a complaint by 19 small parties that the hurdle put them at an unfair disadvantage in May's European parliamentary ballot.

The German Constitutional Court found that the three-percent clause represented a "serious encroachment" on electoral equality that was "not justified" and flouted Germany's constitution.

Many politicians criticised the ruling, saying it would help small fringe parties and lead to further fragmentation of the EU's legislature after May elections in which populist groups are expected to make gains.

"It helps clear the way for rightwing populists and anti-Europeans, of whom there are already enough in the European Parliament," senior Social Democrat Ralf Stegner was quoted saying by national news agency DPA.

The far-right and anti-immigrant National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) was quick to hail the court ruling as a "bitter blow against the anti-democratic conduct of the Berlin political cartel".

But the ruling was also welcomed by the small Internet-freedom Pirates party, whose chairman Thorsten Wirth said "in coming European elections, unlike five years ago, a substantial part of the vote won't fall by the wayside".

Germany's current five-percent hurdle for entry into the Bundestag lower house of parliament, which elects the national government, is not affected by the court's decision.

The Karlsruhe-based court said such a hurdle was not needed for the European Parliament to be able to function, whereas in the Bundestag, a stable majority is required to elect a government that is capable of acting.

German lawmakers last June voted to lower the electoral threshold for the European Parliament from five to three percent following an earlier ruling by the Constitutional Court.

The court had in 2011 ruled against the five-percent marker for European elections because it put small parties at a disadvantage, without suggesting an alternative level.

The removal of the three-percent hurdle may spell good news for Chancellor Angela Merkel's former junior coalition partners, the pro-business Free Democrats, in the European elections.

The party flunked out of the German parliament for the first time ever in the September poll when it failed to skim the five percent of votes needed.

And the eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) said it was a good sign for democracy.

The AfD, which favours a return to the deutschmark, scored just below the five-percent threshold in September's national elections but garnered seven percent in a poll published in January.

Germany will have 96 of the 751 seats in the new European Parliament after the May vote.