Every four years, the parties stand in the general elections to the Bundestag. Traditionally, the turn-out is high in Germany, and following a high in the 1970s, when the turn-out was over 90 percent, since reunification it has been around 80 percent.
The German electoral system is based on slightly modified, i.e., so-called personalized, proportional representation. Each voter has two votes, the first of which is for a candidate in his or her constituency, the second for a state list of candidates put up by a particular party. The number of seats a party holds in the Bundestag is determined by the number of valid second votes it receives.
The German electoral system makes it very difficult for any one party to form a government on its own. This has only happened once in 56 years. An alliance of parties is the general rule. So that the voters know which partner the party they voted for is considering governing with, the parties mostly issue coalition statements before embarking on the election campaign. By voting for a particular party citizens thus express on the one hand a preference for a specific party alliance, and on the other determine the balance of power between the desired future partners in government.
61,5 million Germans aged 18 or over are called on to cast a vote in the elections to the Bundestag. Women account for more than 31,7 million of them and thus constitute a majority of the electorate. At the 2017 elections to the Bundestag 3 million persons were enfranchised as first-time voters.
The Federal Chancellor is the only member of the Federal Government to be elected. The constitution empowers him to personally choose his ministers, who head the most important political authorities. Moreover it is the Chancellor who determines the number of ministries and their responsibilities. It is he who lays down the guidelines of government policy. These outline the Chancellor’s right to stipulate binding government activities. This authority gives the Federal Chancellor a whole array of instruments of leadership that easily stands up to a comparison with the power of the President in a presidential democracy.
The Parliamentary Council, which in 1949 resolved the Basic Law, took as its role model for the Federal Chancellor the position of the Prime Minister in Great Britain. The Prime Minister possesses exactly the same means of power as that of Chancellor, though the latter’s power is actually far less than that of the British premier. In the British parliamentary system only one party is ever in power, because the first-past-the-post system there favors the strongest party. As a rule, in the Bundestag no one party has a clear majority. For this reason a coalition is normally necessary to be able to elect a Chancellor.
The election of the Chancellor is preceded by extensive negotiations between those parties that plan to govern together. These address specific topics such as how the ministries are to be divided up between the parties, which ministries are to be maintained and which newly created. The strongest party in the alliance is accorded the right to propose the Federal Chancellor. In addition the parties agree on the policies they intend to tackle in the next few years. The results of these coalition negotiations are enshrined in the coalition treaty. Only when these steps have been completed is the Chancellor elected. Negotiations between the government parties prepare the decisions taken by the Federal Government and accompany them afterwards. Should there no longer be political consensus between the parties before general elections for a new Bundestag are due, removing the Chancellor from office becomes an alternative. Should a constructive vote of no confidence result in the current Chancellor indeed being removed from office, a new Chancellor must be elected at the same time. This repeal of parliamentary confidence forces the parties represented in the Bundestag to form a new, functioning government majority before they bring down the Chancellor. There have only been two previous attempts to bring down the Chancellor, only one of which succeeded, namely in 1982 when a vote of no confidence was passed against the Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (SPD), who was replaced by Helmut Kohl (CDU).
However, at any time the Federal Chancellor himself can also propose a vote of no confidence in the Bundestag to test whether he still enjoys the unlimited support of the governing parties. Should the Chancellor lose the vote this indicates that parts of the government majority are drifting away from the Chancellor, leaving the Federal President to decide whether the Bundestag should be dissolved and a general election held. The Federal President can also request the parties represented in the Bundestag to try and form a new government.
In the history of the Federal Republic there has never been a genuine defeat in a vote of no confidence. There have on three occasions been previously arranged defeats: The elected representatives of the government parties or the ministers abstained in order to bring down the government in 1972, 1982, and 2005. This course of action was taken in order to prematurely dissolve the Bundestag, which according to the constitution is otherwise not possible. It can only be taken with the approval of the Federal President and is legally not uncontroversial.
The Federal Government and cabinet is made up of the Federal Chancellor and the Federal Ministers. While the Chancellor holds the power to issue directives, the ministers have departmental powers, meaning that they independently run their respective ministries in the framework of those directives. Moreover, the cabinet abides by the collegial principle, in disputes the Federal Government decides by majority. The affairs of state are managed by the Chancellor.
The Federal President is the head of state of the Federal Republic of Germany. He represents the country in its dealings with other countries and appoints government members, judges and high-ranking civil servants. With his signature, acts become legally binding. He can dismiss the government and, in exceptional cases, dissolve parliament before its term of office is completed. The Basic Law does not accord the Federal President a right of veto such as is held by the President of the United States and other state presidents. Though the Federal President confirms parliamentary decisions and government proposals with regard to ministers, he only checks whether they have come about by the due procedure in accordance with the Basic Law.
The Federal President remains in office for a period of five years; he can be re-elected only once. He is elected by the Federal Convention, which is made up of members of the Bundestag, on the one hand, and by an equal number of members selected by parliaments of the 16 federal states, on the other.
Germany is a federal state. Both the central federal government and the 16 federal states have independent areas of jurisdiction. The government in Berlin is responsible for foreign policy, European policy, defense, justice, employment, social affairs, tax and health. The federal states are responsible for internal security, schooling, tertiary education, administration and local government. Central government’s area of responsibility is mainly limited to legislation, in which the federal states are involved through their presence in the Bundesrat. It is the duty of the federal administration systems, on the other hand, to enforce not only the laws that apply in their own particular state, but those of central government as well.
The reasons for this task sharing lie in the past: The German nation state emerged in 1871 through the union of several independent states. This made the establishment of a larger central administration system superfluous. The three city states are a peculiarity among the 16 federal states. Their territory is limited in each case to the major cities of Berlin, Bremen/Bremerhaven and Hamburg, whereas the other larger states comprise a number of city and rural municipalities.
Only those parties are taken into account when allocating seats in the Bundestag as have overcome the following hurdle: they must have polled at least five percent of the vote or won at least three constituencies outright.
The Basic Law determines that Germany is a constitutional state: All state authorities are subject to judicial control. Section 1 of the Basic Law is of particular relevance. It stipulates that respect for human dignity is the most important aspect of the constitution: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” Among other things, the other basic rights guarantee the freedom to act within the law, equality before the law, freedom of the press and media, freedom of association and protection of the family.
In determining that it is the people who exercise power through special bodies, the Basic Law lays down representative democracy as the form of rulership. Furthermore, it determines that Germany is a constitutional state: All state authorities are subject to judicial control. Another principle of the constitution is that Germany is a federal state, in other words the ruling authorities are divided up into a number of member states and the central state. In conclusion, the Basic Law defines Germany as a welfare state. The welfare state requires the political system to take precautions such that people are guaranteed a decent standard of material well-being in case of unemployment, disability, illness and in old age. One particular feature of the Basic Law is the so-called “eternal character” of these governing constitutional principles. Subsequent alterations to the Basic Law or a completely new constitution cannot encroach on the basic rights, the democratization of sovereignty, the federal state and the welfare state.
In determining that it is the people who exercise power through special bodies, the Basic Law lays down representative democracy as the form of rulership. Furthermore, the constitutions of the German federal states stipulate instruments of direct democracy. With a popular initiative a minimum required number of citizens can call on a state parliament to draw up a law. In the same way a petition for referendum demands that the parliament pass a bill that has been presented. Should the parliament not heed the petition a referendum is held, through which the majority can determine the law.
The Bundesrat represents the federal states and alongside the Bundestag is a form of Second Chamber. It is obliged to deliberate on each federal law. As the chamber of the federal states, the Bundesrat has the same function as those Second Chambers in other federal states that are mostly referred to as the Senate. The Bundesrat is made up exclusively of representatives of the federal state governments. The number of votes each state holds is aligned in a sense to the size of its population: Each state has at least three, and those with the highest populations up to six.
The Bundesrat plays a part in the passing of federal legislation. Here, it differs from the Second Chamber of other federal states. The Basic Law envisages two forms of participation. Central laws that cause the federal states additional administrative costs or replace existing central laws require the approval of the Bundesrat: The latter is required to endorse laws passed by the Bundestag for these to become legally binding. In this regard, the Bundesrat enjoys the same rights as the Bundestag in terms of being a legislative organ. Currently almost 50 percent of all laws passed require the approval of the Bundesrat. Since federal laws are in principle enforced by the administrative bodies of the federal states, the most important and most costly laws involve the administrative sovereignty of the federal states. A difference should be made between these approval laws and the appeal laws. Though the Bundesrat can reject the latter, the Bundestag can overrule the objection with the same majority as in the Bundesrat, with a simple or two-thirds majority, in the event of the latter with at least the majority of the members of the Bundestag (absolute majority).
Since September 2006, the reform of the federal system has recalibrated the respective scope of central government and of the individual federal states. The goal of the reform: to improve the decision-making abilities and scope for action of both central government and the federal state governments, and to more clearly assign political responsibilities.
The Bundestag is the elected representation of the German people. Technically speaking half the 598 seats in the Bundestag are allocated by means of the parties’ state lists (the second vote) and the other half by the direct election of candidates in the 299 constituencies (the first vote). This division changes nothing with regard to the key role of the parties in the electoral system. Only those candidates who belong to a party have any chance of success. The party to whom members of the Bundestag belong is meant to reflect the distribution of votes. In order to prevent complications in the formation of majorities by the presence of small and very small parties a five-percent threshold is designed to stop their being represented in the Bundestag.
The Bundestag is the German parliament. Its elected representatives are organized in parliamentary parties and select a President from among them. It is the function of the Bundestag to elect the Federal Chancellor and keep him in office through support for his policies. The members of parliament can relieve the Chancellor of his duties by denying him their confidence, as do other parliaments. Nor does it make any great difference that in Germany the Chancellor is elected, whereas in Great Britain and other parliamentary democracies he is appointed by the head of state. In other parliamentary democracies, a party leader who can rely on a parliamentary majority is always appointed head of government.
The second major function of the elected representatives in the Bundestag is to pass legislation. Here, again, the Bundestag is similar to parliaments in other parliamentary democracies in that it for the most part enacts bills proposed by the Federal Government. The Bundestag however, which resides in the Reichstag building in Berlin, is less like the debating parliament typified by British parliamentary culture and corresponds far more closely to the US type of so-called working parliament. The Bundestag’s expert parliamentary committees discuss the bills introduced to Parliament in detail.
The Bundestag’s expert Parliamentary Committees discuss the bills introduced to Parliament in great detail. Here, the activities of the Bundestag resemble to some extent Congress in the USA, the prototype of a working parliament. The third major function of the Bundestag is to keep a check on the government’s work. It is the opposition that fulfills the function of monitoring the work of government in a manner visible to the general public. A less evident, but no less effective form of control is carried out by the members of parliament of the governing parties, who behind closed doors ask the government representatives critical questions.
The Federal Constitutional Court is a characteristic institution of post-war German democracy. The Basic Law accorded it the right to repeal legislation passed as part of the legitimate democratic process should it come to the conclusion that such legislation contravenes the Basic Law. The Constitutional Court acts only when appealed to. Those entitled to lodge a complaint include the federal bodies Federal President, Bundestag, Bundesrat, Federal Government and their constituent parts – elected representatives or parliamentary parties – as well as federal state governments. In “constitution-related” disputes, the Constitutional Court acts to protect the division of powers guaranteed in the Basic Law and the federal state. In order to enable parliamentary minorities to be able to appeal to the Constitutional Court, one third of the elected representatives of the Bundestag is sufficient to submit a complaint against a valid law (“abstract judicial review”).
Furthermore, the Basic Law empowers individual citizens to launch a “constitutional complaint” should they feel that the state has infringed their basic rights. Year after year thousands of citizens register a complaint against the constitution. However, the Court reserves the right to select from the mass of petitions submitted only those that can be expected to result in verdicts that point the way ahead in terms of the validity of basic rights. Ultimately every German court is obliged to submit a petition for actual assessment of the normative basis to the Constitutional Court should it consider a law to be un-constitutional. The Federal Constitutional Court holds a monopoly on interpretation of the constitution with regard to all jurisdiction.
The German federal state is a complex entity. It consists of a central Federal Government and 16 federal states. The Basic Law lays out which issues fall within the ambit of the Federal Government and which devolve to the federal states. As such the federal system in Germany is similar to that of other federal countries. Public life in Germany is predominantly based on central laws. In accordance with the principle of subsidiarity citizens, on the other hand, deal almost exclusively with state and local authorities acting on behalf of the federal states. The reason for this is the aim of the Basic Law to combine the advantages of a unified state with those of a federal state. In everyday life the citizens of other federal states have far more frequent dealings with representatives of central government.
The Basic Law stipulates that it be possible to compare living conditions throughout Germany. Essentially these are determined by economic and social policy. With regard to financial policy the German constitution accords the federal states considerable leeway in the financing of their duties. All high-revenue taxes are decreed by law, though this needs the approval of the Bundesrat, which represents the states at federal level. Part of these taxes goes to central government alone or to the federal states and another part, including the particularly lucrative taxes, is divided up between central government and the federal states. To this extent the German federal state resembles a centralized state. Nonetheless it is the federal states that control the major part of pan-state administration. This means that federalist elements dominate the state administrative systems. First, its own administrative system enforces the laws that apply in that particular state. In addition they also execute most central laws. Given the large number of duties passed down from central government to the federal states several of them have, in the past, had to take on enormous debts. In 2009 an amendment was made to the constitution forbidding them to raise further loans as of 2020 and limiting the amount of new debts central government can take on from 2016 – with a proviso for economic crisis situations – to a maximum of 0.35 percent of the gross domestic product (the debt ceiling).
There are three pan-state functions the individual federal states exercise on their own: schooling and tertiary education, internal security, including policing, as well as the organization of local self-government. Thanks to the wide-ranging rights pertaining to guaranteed participation they enjoy in the Bundesrat, the federal states receive a form of compensation for the fact that central government is the primary body determining legislation.