The government is parliamentary, and a democratic constitution emphasizes the protection of individual liberty and division of powers in a federal structure. The chancellor (prime minister) heads the executive branch of the federal government. The duties of the president (chief of state) are largely ceremonial; the chancellor exercises executive power. The Bundestag (lower, principal chamber of the parliament) elects the chancellor. The president is elected every 5 years on May 23 by the Federal Assembly, a body convoked only for this purpose, comprising the entire Bundestag and an equal number of state delegates.
Germany - Federal President
In terms of protocol the Federal President holds the highest office. He is elected not by the people, but by a Federal Assembly convened specially for the purpose. Half of it is made up of the members of the Bundestag, the other half of members elected by the federal state parliaments in relation to the distribution of seats there.
The first Federal Convention met in Bonn on September 12, 1949. In 1954, the convention moved to West Berlin, where it continued to meet until 1969. From 1974 to 1989, the convention returned to Bonn. Since 1994, the meeting place has been the Reichstag building in Berlin, which also houses the Bundestag.
Candidates are usually nominated by a political party or several parties. The contenders for the presidency do not normally run a campaign in the lead-up to the election. The president is elected by a secret ballot without any prior debate. If none of the candidates receive an absolute majority in the first round of voting, a second vote is held. If the second round also fails to produce a result, then a third vote is held, but this time candidates only have to win a relative majority.
The Federal President holds office for five years and may be re-elected once. What is expected from the largely ceremonial position as German head of state is clear, memorable words, often concerning topics that directly-elected politicians might be too wary to address in front of voters.
During the 1989-1990 peaceful revolution he was an active member of the civil rights movement. Joachim Gauck was the 11th Federal President since 1949. Although the Federal President’s duties are primarily representational in nature, he can refuse to put his signature to legislation if he has doubts about it complying with the constitution. Previous incumbents have exerted the greatest influence through public speeches, which receive great attention. The Federal Presidents refrain from becoming involved in party politics, but do tackle current issues and from time to time urge the government, parliament, and the population to take action. Issues that Joachim Gauck, who refers to himself as the people’s president, frequently addresses are human rights questions, Germany’s responsibility for its actions, and dangers for democracy.
A German 1,260-member special assembly elected Frank-Walter Steinmeier as president on 12 February 2017. The former foreign minister was chosen to become the 12th president of Germany on March 18.
Germany - Bundesrat
The Bundesrat represents the 16 German states in government. It is the states' representative in the legislative process. The Bundesrat is made up of the 16 state governors, and state ministers. A state's representation in the Bundesrat is dependent upon its population. Small states, such as Bremen, might have three representatives, while a large state like Bavaria has six.
Germany - Bundestag
"To the German people," reads the inscription over the main door of the Reichstag, Germany's parliament building. Together with the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, the parliament passes the country's laws. In addition to debating and passing new laws, the Bundestag - Germany's lower house of parliament - elects the German chancellor and controls the government's agenda. It also decides on the annual budget.
German voters cast two ballots, one to directly elect a Bundestag member in an individual district and the other to vote for a party. The Bundestag has at least 598 members, 299 members directly elected in districts and another 299 members via party lists through proportional representation. Extra seats are created if a party wins more directly elected seats in one of the 16 federal states than it would get under the proportional ballots cast by voters. In 2005, Germans elected 611 members of parliament.
The MPs of a given party constitute what is known as a parliamentary party. Depending on the strength of the parliamentary party, the members sign on to permanent and temporary committees. That's where the actual work of governing gets done - especially in the caucuses that create laws, and issue petitions and requests. The president of the Bundestag presides over the lower house. He or she is the third-highest ranking person in German government, after the German president and the president of the Bundesrat (the upper house of parliament.) The Bundesrat president even officially ranks above the Geman chancellor. The president of the Bundestag comes from the strongest parliamentary party. He or she represents the parliament, leads sessions and makes sure that the parliamentary rights are vouchsafed.
New laws have to go through many phases before they are can take effect in Germany. First, the Bundestag, the Bundesrat or the federal government proposes a law. Then the text is discussed and written in committees. When it comes to voting, each representative is expected to vote only according to his or her own conscience. But in fact, votes often fall neatly along party lines, following closely the party's political values and also showing a united front to the public. It is known as "party discipline" - not to be confused with party coercion, which is not allowed since it would de facto take away the parliamentarians' decision-making power.
After lawmakers vote in favor of a proposal in the Bundestag, it moves on to the Bundesrat. The legal structure differentiates between statutes that do not require assent, and those that do. Laws that need to be put into place by the states - which require their financial involvement or the alteration of the state's constitution - need to be agreed by the states. If the Bundesrat votes such a law down, then the law is sent to what is known as an arbitration committee. The committee is made up of 16 representatives from the Bundestag and the Bundesrat together. They work out a compromise, and the Bundestag must once more vote on this result. But the committee can also suggest that the law get passed as-is, in which case the Bundesrat is obliged to agree.
Then there are laws that don't require assent. If the Bundesrat disapproves of the law, then the Bundestag can overturn it with a majority of votes. In that case, certain ministers, the German chancellor, and the President of the Republic need to sign the law when it is completed.
The system of personalised proportional representation is decisive with regard to the character of the parliament. This way, smaller parties are also represented in the Bundestag in proportion to their election results. For this reason, with one exception, the Federal Government has always been formed through an alliance of several parties that had competed against each other in the election; since the first Bundestag election in 1949 there have been 23 coalition governments. To avoid fragmentation in parliament and make forming a government easier, parties must poll at least five per cent of the votes cast (or three direct mandates) in order to be represented in the Bundestag (this rule is known as the five percent hurdle).
German lawmakers on 17 March 2023 approved a plan to shrink the country's increasingly bloated Parliament. However, two opposition parties, the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Left Party, were vehemently critical and the plan is expected to face a court challenge. Parliament's lower house, also known as Bundestag, currently has a record 736 members. The changes approved on a 400-261 vote with 23 abstentions would reduce this number to 630.
During elections in Germany, every voter gets two votes, one for a directly elected candidate, the other for a party list. Each of the country's 299 constituencies elects the legislative representative directly by a simple majority vote. And at least 299 further seats go to candidates elected on party lists. If a party wins more seats via the direct vote than it would get under the party vote, it keeps the extra seats — but more seats are added for other parties to ensure the proportional vote is reflected accurately. Under the new system, parties would have to win five per cent of the vote share in the division of seats and the three-winner option would be eliminated. No extra seats would be added to allow all direct constituency winners to take their seats.
As the country's traditional big parties have continued to dominate the direct vote even as their overall support has declined, that can result in the Bundestag having many more lawmakers than the minimum requirement of 598. The plan drawn off by the governing coalition would set the size of the lower house of parliament to 630 seats.
Germany - Federal Chancellor
The Bundestag elects the Federal Chancellor for the legislative period by secret ballot. Within the Federal Government the Chancellor has the authority to lay down guidelines, in other words determines binding broad policy lines. The Federal Chancellor appoints the federal ministers, and from among them a Deputy Chancellor. In actual fact, however, it is the parties that make up the government that decide which persons will head the ministries they were allocated in the coalition negotiations.
In building a cabinet, the future coalition partners first negotiate on the number of ministries each party will get as well as the responsibilities that belong to each ministry. Sets of ministries are seen as related and are normally divided among the coalition parties to ensure that a single party cannot make policy without broader agreement; since 1966 the Foreign Office had belonged to a member of the junior coalition partner to balance the Chancellor's foreign policy prerogatives. Foreign and defense go to different parties, and during the last black-yellow coalition the CSU usually held the Ministry for Economic Cooperation (development) to afford it some competence in foreign policy making. In previous periods of SPD-FDP and CDU/CSU-FDP rule, Economics and Finance were also divided between the two sides as were Interior and Justice (a practice shared by the Grand Coalition).
If a coalition collapses, the Chancellor can also fall prior to the end of the electoral term, as the Federal Government has the right to vote the head of government out of office at any time. In such cases parliament must, however, name a successor at the same time in what is known as a “constructive vote of no confidence”. This means that there can be no period of time without an elected government in office.
Germany - Federal States
Germany’s federal character is revealed in the large level of independence the 16 federal states enjoy, in particular with regard to the police, disaster control, the law, and culture. For historical reasons the cities of Berlin, Hamburg, and Bremen are also federal states. The close links between the federal states and central government is unique, resulting in the state governments having numerous opportunities to play an active role in central government policy.
This occurs primarily through the Bundesrat, the upper house, which is made up of members of the federal state governments and is likewise in Berlin. Densely populated federal states have greater representation in the Bundesrat than smaller ones. By being coalition partners in federal state governments, parties that at federal level are in opposition, or not even represented in the Bundestag, can thus potentially exert an influence on politics at federal level, as numerous federal acts and decrees require the approval of the Bundesrat. Since 2011 and 2014 the two smallest parties represented in the Bundestag, Alliance 90/The Greens and The Left party, have provided the Prime Minister in one federal state each (Baden-Wurttemberg and Thuringia respectively).
Because there is no uniform election date for the federal state parliaments and the legislature periods vary, parallel to the legislative term in the Bundestag the balance of power in the Bundesrat can change several times. With the current constellation of the chamber of federal states, the Federal Government has no safe majority in the Bundesrat.
There are no longer any distinct blocks demonstrating uniform voting behavior, as there is more diversity with regard to coalitions in the 16 federal states than ever before in the Federal Republic. Only in Bavaria can a single party, the CSU, rule without a coalition partner. Otherwise, in addition to federal state governments made up of the CDU and SPD parties there are also combinations of SPD and Alliance 90/The Greens, of the CDU and Alliance 90/The Greens, of SPD and The Left party and one coalition of The Left party, SPD, and Alliance 90/The Greens.
Germany - Judiciary
The Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, which the people hold in very high esteem, exerts great influence. It is regarded as “the guardian of the Basic Law” and through its important decisions provides a binding interpretation of the constitutional text. In two panels it passes judgement on disputes between constitutional bodies about areas of jurisdiction, and can declare laws to be incompatible with the Basic Law. Any citizen can appeal to the Constitutional Court if he is of the opinion that a law violates his basic rights. The Federal Constitutional Court recently gained great importance through decisions relating to the assigning of Bundestag rights to the European Union.
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