Germany is a parliamentary and federal democracy. The German Bundestag, the constitutional body most present in the public eye, is directly elected by citizens eligible to vote every four years. The most important tasks of the Bundestag are legislation and to oversee the government’s work. 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. 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.
Coalition governments are the rule in Germany
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 24 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).
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.
Great diversity of coalitions represented in the Bundesrat
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 majority in the Bundesrat. There are no longer any distinct blocks demonstrating uniform voting behaviour, as there is more diversity with regard to coalitions in the 16 federal states than ever before since the foundation of the Federal Republic. In spring 2018, in addition to three state governments ach made up of the CDU and SPD parties three consisting of The Left party, SPD and Greens, as well as out of SPD, CDU and Greens. Moreover, there were two coalitions of CDU and Greens, and one coalition respectively of CDU and FDP; CDU, Greens and FDP; SPD, FDP and Greens; and CSU and Free Voters.
The Federal President is the most senior political person in the country
In terms of protocol the Federal President holds the highest office. S/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 Federal President holds office for five years and may be re-elected once. Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier has been Federal President since 2017. As an SPD politician he served as Federal Foreign Minister from 2005 until 2009 and from 2013 until 2017. Steinmeier is the 12th 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. During the formation of a government following the 2017 Bundestag elections, which, for Germany, was an unusually protracted process, it was important to Steinmeier to avoid fresh elections. Without his intervention, it is unlikely the SPD would have entered into a Grand Coalition at this point in time. Steinmeier has also made a public appearance as regards the Coronavirus crisis. In April 2020 in a TV address he appealed to the citizens to understand the need for the measures designed to constrain the pandemic.
The Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe: guardian of the Basic Law
The Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, which the population holds 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.