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Germany

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Politics of Germany take place in a framework of a federal parliamentary representative democratic republic, whereby the Chancellor is the head of government, and of a plurality multi-party system. Federal legislative power is vested in the parliament (Bundestag) and the Bundesrat as the representation of the regional states. Since 1949, the party system has been dominated by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).

The Judiciary of Germany is independent of the executive and the legislature. The political system is laid out in the 1949 constitution, the Grundgesetz (Basic Law), which remained in effect with minor amendments after 1990's German reunification.

The constitution emphasizes the protection of individual liberty in an extensive catalogue of human rights and also divides powers both between the federal and state levels and between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. In many ways, the 1949 Basic Law is a response to the perceived flaws of the 1919 Weimar Constitution, which may have had its share in the decline of the republic and the subsequent rise of the Nazi party in 1933.

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Federal executive branch

Chancellery in Berlin, since 2001

The Bundeskanzler (Federal Chancellor) heads the Bundesregierung (Federal Government) and thus the executive branch of the federal government. He or she is elected by and responsible to the Bundestag, Germany's parliament. Germany, like the United Kingdom, can thus be classified as a parliamentary system.

The Chancellor cannot be removed from office during a four year term unless the Bundestag has agreed on a successor. This Constructive Vote of No Confidence is intended to avoid the situation of the Weimar Republic in which the executive did not have enough support in the legislature to govern effectively, but the legislature was too divided to name a successor.

Except in the periods 1969–72 and 1976–82, when the social democratic party of Chancellor Brandt and Schmidt came in second in the elections, the Chancellor has always been the candidate of the largest party, usually supported by a coalition of two parties with a majority in the parliament. One of the ministers the Chancellor appoints Vice-Chancellor (Vizekanzler). The office itself is hardly important but often indicates who is the main cabinet member of the smaller coalition partner.

By contrast, the duties of the Bundespräsident (Federal President) are largely representative and ceremonial. The President is elected every five years on May 23 by the Federal Assembly (Bundesversammlung), a special body convened only for this purpose, comprising the entire Bundestag and an equal number of state delegates selected especially for this purpose in proportion to election results for the state diets.

Horst Köhler of the CDU was first elected in May 2004 and was reelected five years later, in May 2009. As this party has usually the biggest support in national elections but also in the Länder, it is quite common that the Federal President is a Christian Democrat.

Main office holders
Office Name Party Since
President Horst Köhler CDU 1 July 2004
Chancellor Angela Merkel CDU 22 November 2005
Other government parties FDP, CSU

1) Although Mr. Köhler has been a member of the CDU the German Basic Law requests in Article 55 that the Federal President does not hold another office, practice a profession or hold a membership of any corporation. Accordingly every Federal President has let his party membership rest dormant and does not belong to a political party during his term of office.

The federal legislature

The Reichstag building, seat of the Bundestag.

Federal legislative power is divided between the Bundestag and the Bundesrat. The Bundestag is directly elected by the German people, whilst the Bundesrat represents the regional states (Länder). The federal legislature has powers of exclusive jurisdiction and concurrent jurisdiction with the states in areas specifically enumerated by the constitution.

The Bundestag is more powerful than the Bundesrat and only need the latter's consent for proposed legislation related to revenue shared by the federal and state governments, and the imposition of responsibilities on the states. In practice, this means that the agreement of the Bundesrat in the legislative process is very often required, as federal legislation often has to be executed by state or local agencies. In the event of disagreement between the Bundestag and the Bundesrat a conciliation committee is formed to find a compromise.

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The Bundestag

The Bundestag (Federal Diet) is elected for a four year term and consists of 598 or more members elected by a means of mixed member proportional representation. 299 members represent single-seat constituencies and are elected by means a First Past the Post electoral system. Parties that obtain less constituency seats than their national share of the vote indicates that they ought to have are allotted seats from party lists to make up the difference. In contrast parties that obtain more constituency seats than their national share of the vote indicates that they ought to have are allowed to keep these so-called overhang seats. In the current parliament elected in 2009 there are 24 overhang seats, giving the Bundestag a total of 622 members.

A party must receive either five percent of the national vote or win at least three directly elected seats to be represented in the Bundestag. This rule, often called the "five percent hurdle", was incorporated into Germany's election law to prevent political fragmentation and strong minor parties. The first Bundestag elections were held in the Federal Republic of Germany ("West Germany") on August 14, 1949. Following reunification, elections for the first all-German Bundestag were held on December 2, 1990. The last election was held on 18 September 2005, the 16th Bundestag convened on 18 October 2005. The number of Bundestag Deputies was reduced from 656 to 598 beginning in 2002, although under the additional member system, more deputies may be admitted if a party wins more directly elected seats than it would be entitled to under proportional representation.

Judicial branch

Constitutional court in Karlsruhe

The independence of the judiciary of Germany is historically older than democracy in Germany, the organization of courts is traditionally strong, and almost all state actions are subject to judicial review. Besides a so-called "ordinary" judicial branch that handles civil and criminal cases, which is in turn composed of four levels of courts up to the Bundesgerichtshof in a fairly complex appeals system, there are separate branches for administrative, tax, labour, and social security issues, each with their own hierarchies. Courts are generally in the hands of the states, except for the highest courts of each branch, which are federal, respectively, to maintain a certain degree of unity in jurisdiction.

In addition, Germany has a powerful Constitutional Court, the Bundesverfassungsgericht. This is somewhat unique since the Basic Law stipulates that every person may file a complaint to that court when his or her constitutional rights, especially the human rights, have been violated by the state and when he or she has exhausted all stages of appeal in the regular court system.

Such actions can include laws passed by the legislative branch, court decisions, or acts of the administration. While in practice, only a small percentage of these constitutional complaints are successful, the Constitutional Court is known to frequently antagonise both the executive and the legislative branches with far-reaching decisions. This has even gone so far as judges openly stating that they are indifferent to the reactions of the government, the Bundestag, public opinion or any financial consequences arising from a decision with the only relevant point being the constitution. It should also be mentioned that the Bundesverfassungsgericht has very high approval rates throughout the general population.

The Constitutional Court also handles several other procedures such as disputes between state institutions over their constitutional powers. It has also the power to outlaw political parties when their goals contravene the principles of the constitution. However so far the Constitutional court has only used this power twice, outlawing the SRP (Socialist Reichs Party, a successor to the NSDAP) in 1952, and the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) in 1956.

Recent politics

"Red-Green" coalition of 1998-2002

After 16 years of the Christian liberal coalition of Helmut Kohl, the Social Democrats together with the Greens won the elections of 1998. SPD leader Gerhard Schröder positioned himself as a centrist "Third Way" candidate in the mold of Britain's Tony Blair and America's Bill Clinton. The Kohl government was hurt at the polls by slower growth in the east in the past two years, widening the economic gap between east and west, and constantly high unemployment.

The final margin of victory was sufficiently high to permit a "red-green" coalition of the SPD with Alliance '90/The Greens (Bündnis '90/Die Grünen), bringing the Greens into a national government for the first time.

Initial problems of the new government, marked by policy disputes between the moderate and traditional left wings of the SPD, resulting in some voter disaffection. CDU won in the first state election after the federal election held in Hesse in February 1999, but in other state elections of this time, the respective SPD- or CDU-led coalition governments were re-elected into power. The popularity of the CDU dropped severely when in 2000 it became public that Kohl had accepted high party donations not indicating them to the authorities as required by law. As a result of this CDU crisis, Angela Merkel became chair.

The next election for the Bundestag was September 22, 2002. Gerhard Schröder led the coalition of SPD and Greens to an eleven seat victory over the Christian democrat challengers headed by Edmund Stoiber (CSU). Three factors are generally cited that enabled Schröder to win the elections despite poor approval ratings a few months before and a weaker economy: good handling of the 100-year-flood, firm opposition to the USA's 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Stoiber's unpopularity in the east that cost the CDU crucial seats there.

Christian democrat comeback

In its second term, the red green coalition lost several very important state elections, for example in Lower Saxony where Schröder was the prime minister from 1990 to 1998. The liberal FDP, weakened by the loss of power in 1998 and not quite recovering in 2002, became again more successful on state level. On the other hand, some far right wing parties had their moments in state elections, too.

In April 20, 2003, chancellor Schröder announced massive labor market reforms, called Agenda 2010, that among other measures include a shakeup of the system of German job offices, cuts in unemployment benefits and subsidies for unemployed persons who start their own businesses. These changes are commonly known by the name of the chairman of the commission which conceived them as Hartz I - Hartz IV. Although these reforms have sparked massive protests they are now credited with being in part responsible for the economic upswing and the fall of unemployment figures in Germany in the years 2006/7.

The European elections on June 13, 2004 brought a staggering defeat for the Social Democrats, who polled only slightly more than 21%, the lowest election result for the SPD in a nationwide election since the Second World War. Many observers believe that this election marked the beginning of the end of the Schröder government and indicates a process in which the SPD party seems to shrink and/or fall apart.

Grand coalition since 2005

Chancellor Angela Merkel
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, foreign affairs minister since 2005, was the social democrat candidate for chancellorship in 2009

On May 22, 2005, as predicted, the SPD took a devastating defeat in its former heartland, North Rhine-Westphalia. Half an hour after the election results, the SPD chairman Franz Müntefering announced that the chancellor would clear the way for special federal elections by the means of a purposely lost vote of confidence in the Bundestag.

This took the republic by surprise, especially because the SPD was below 25% in polls at the time. On the following Monday the CDU announced Angela Merkel as Christian democrat candidate for chancellorship, aspiring to be the first female chancellor in German history.

New for the 2005 election was the alliance between the newly formed Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice (WASG) and the PDS, planning to fuse into a common party (see Left Party.PDS). With the former SPD chairman Oskar Lafontaine for the WASG and Gregor Gysi for the PDS as prominent figures, this alliance soon found interest in the media and in the population. Polls in July saw them as high as 12%.

Whereas in May and June 2005 victory of the Christian democrats seemed highly likely, with some polls giving them an absolute majority, this picture changed shortly before the election at September 18, 2005, especially after the Christian democrats introduced Paul Kirchhof as potential minister of the treasury, and after a TV duel between Merkel and Schröder where many considered Schröder to have performed better.

The election results of September 18, 2005 were surprising insofar as they differed widely from the polls of the previous weeks. The Christian democrats lost votes compared to 2002, reaching only 35%, and failed to get a majority for a "black-yellow" government of CDU/CSU and liberal FDP. The FDP polled a stunning 10% of the votes, one of their best results ever. But the red-green coalition also failed to get a majority, with the SPD losing votes, but polling 34% and the greens staying at 8%. The left party alliance reached 8.7% and entered the German Parliament, whereas the NPD only got 1.6%.

The most likely outcome of coalition talks was a so-called "grand coalition" between the Christian democrats (CDU/CSU) and the social democrats (SPD), with the three smaller parties (liberals, greens and the left) in the opposition. Other possible coalitions include a "traffic light coalition" between SPD, FDP and Greens and a "Jamaica coalition" between CDU/CSU, FDP and Greens. Coalitions involving the Left Party have been ruled out by all parties (including the Left Party itself).

On November 22, 2005, Angela Merkel was sworn in by president Horst Köhler for the office of Bundeskanzlerin. Merkel is the first woman, the first East German and the first scientist to be chancellor as well as the youngest post-war German chancellor. The existence of the grand coalition on federal level helps smaller parties electoral prospects in state elections.

Since in 2008, the CSU lost its absolute majority in Bavaria and formed a coalition with the FDP, the grand coalition has no majority in the Bundesrat and depends on FDP votes on important issues. In November 2008, the SPD re-elected Franz Müntefering as its chairman and made Frank-Walter Steinmeier its leading candidate for the federal election in September 2009.

As a result of the that federal election, the grand coalition came to an end. The SPD suffered the heaviest losses in its history and was unable to form a coalition government. Consequently, the SPD's status as a Volkspartei has come into question (a Volkspartei is a party in the German system that has traditionally drawn votes from a broad group of supporters and claims to represent the interests of all German citizens, as opposed to special interest parties that focus most of their energy around a single issue, such as the Pirate Party or the RRP). Many political commentators speculated in televised interviews on election night that Müntefering will most likely resign as party leader, and that Steinmeier will eventually also step down from the ranks of the party's leadership sometime thereafter. Many voters who had traditionally been supporters of the SPD split their votes in the 2009 election between the FDP, the Left Party or the CDU, as the SPD had lost much of its former vitality and direction as a result of its secondary role in the grand coalition and its subsequently weak campaign efforts against the CDU before the 2009 election. The smaller parties thus have more seats in the German Bundestag than ever before, for example the liberal party FDP won 14,6% of votes and had one of its best election results ever. The existential crisis within the SPD will likely continue as the party struggles to unify its base and refine its ideology and platform. Foremost among its concerns will likely be a redefinition of its relationship to the Left Party (which profited greatly in the election from voters who had traditionally supported the more left-wing elements of the SPD), which the SPD had refused to govern with prior to the election for a number of reasons.

See also

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