Its 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, respectively. In many ways, the 1949 Grundgesetz is a strong response to the perceived flaws of the failed 1919 Weimar Republic, which obviously collapsed in favor of the dictatorship of the so-called Third Reich.
The Federal Republic (Bundesrepublik) consists of 16 federal states (Bundesländer). The Grundgesetz prescribes that legislature is to be handled by the states except where explicitly stated in the Grundgesetz itself. This principle has been quite reversed in practice through many amendments of the constitution since 1949, leaving basically only police and cultural affairs to be handled by state legislature.
The political systems of the individual states are prescribed by state constitutions, but resemble that of the federal level to a certain extent. The heads of the federal states' governments are usually called Ministerpräsidenten (Minister Presidents). They each form a state cabinet as well, although it is usually much smaller than the federal government. Elections for the parliaments of the Bundesländer occur every four to five years, depending on the state.
The Bundeskanzler (Federal Chancellor) heads the executive branch of the federal government. He is elected by and responsible to Parliament (the Bundestag). Germany, like the United Kingdom, can thus be classified as a parliamentary system.
The Chancellor cannot be removed from office during a 4-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 government effectively, but the legislature was too divided to name a successor.
So far, the Chancellor has always been the candidate of the party with the most seats in parliament. He appoints a Vice-Chancellor (Vizekanzler), who is a member of his cabinet, usually the Foreign Minister. When there is a coalition government (which has, so far, always been the case), the Vice-Chancellor usually belongs to the smaller party of the coalition.
The heads of governments may change the structure of ministries whenever and however they see fit. For example, in the middle of February 2001, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture was renamed to Ministry of Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture as a consequence of the BSE crisis. For that measure, competences from the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Health were transferred to the new Ministry of Consumer Protection.
By contrast, the duties of the Bundespräsident (Federal President) are largely representative and ceremonial; power is exercised by the Chancellor. The President is elected every 5 years on May 23 by the Federal Assembly, a special body convoked only for this purpose, comprising the entire Bundestag and an equal number of state delegates selected especially for this purpose. In 1999, Johannes Rau of the Social Democratic Party was elected. The fact that the President is not popularly elected is to prevent him from gaining enough popular legitimacy to circumvent the constitution, as occurred with the Weimar Republic.
The Bundestag (Federal Assembly) is Germany's parliament. It is elected for a 4-year term, consists of at least twice the number of electoral districts -- 328 in 1998, being reduced to 299 -- in the country. (More deputies may be admitted when parties' directly elected seats exceed their proportional representation.) Elections for an all-German Bundestag were first held on December 2, 1990, and again on October 16, 1994 and September 27, 1998. A total of 669 deputies were seated after the 1998 national elections. In order to prevent political fragmentation and strong minor parties, a party must have 5% of the vote or at least three direct elected deputies to be represented in the Bundestag.
The Bundesrat (Federal Council) is the representation of the state governments at the federal level. It consists of 69 members who are delegates of the 16 Bundesländer and include the 16 Minister Presidents themselves.
The legislature has powers of exclusive jurisdiction and concurrent jurisdiction with the Länder in areas specifically enumerated by the Basic Law. The Bundestag bears the major responsibility. The necessity for the Bundesrat to concur on legislation is limited to bills treating revenue shared by federal and state governments and those imposing responsibilities on the states, although in practice, this is quite common. Still, Germany's legislative branch cannot quite be considered bicameral[?]; see Federal Council of Germany for details.
Since the political color of the Bundesrat (which depends on the various state elections that occur independently of the federal ones) is quite frequently inverse to that of the Bundestag, it has, in recent years, become more and more an arena for the political parties as opposed to one for state interests, as the constitution intended.
Germany has an independent judiciary branch[?]. Since the independence of the judiciary 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 comprised of four levels of courts up to the Bundesgerichtshof in a fairly complex appeals system, there are separate branches for administrative, tax, labor, and social 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 Grundgesetz stipulates in principle that every person may file a complaint to that court when his constitutional rights, especially the human rights, have been violated by the state. 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 (Verfassungsbeschwerden) is successful, the Constitutional Court is known to frequently annoy both the executive and the legislative branches with far-reaching decisions. The Constitutional Court also handles several other procedures such as disputes between state institutions over their constitutional powers.
The following parties currently participate in the Bundestag, sorted by the number of seats (refer to the following links for details):
Other parties. In addition to those parties that won representation in the Bundestag in 1998, a variety of minor parties won a cumulative total of 5.9% of the vote, up from 3.5% in 1994. 16 other parties were on the ballot in one or more states, but not qualified for representation in the Bundestag. The right-wing parties remained fragmented and ineffectual at the national level.
The SPD in the 1998 election emphasized commitment to reducing persistently high unemployment and appealed to voters' desire for new faces after 16 years of Kohl government. Schröder positioned himself as a centrist "Third Way" candidate in the mold of Britain's Tony Blair. The CDU/CSU stood on its record of economic performance and experience in foreign policy. 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. The final margin of victory was sufficiently high to permit a "red-green" coalition of the SPD with the Greens, bringing the Greens into a national government for the first time.
The first months of the new government were marked by policy disputes between the moderate and traditional left wings of the SPD, resulting in some voter disaffection. The first state election after the federal election was held in Hesse in February, 1999. The CDU increased its vote by 3.5 percent to emerge as the largest party, and was able to replace a SPD/Green coalition with a CDU/FDP coalition. The result was interpreted in part as a referendum on the federal government's proposed new citizenship law, which would have eased requirements for long-time foreign residents to obtain citizenship, and permitted them to retain their original citizenship as well. In other state elections in 2000 and 2001, the respective SPD- or CDU-led coalition governments were re-elected into power.
Since 1998, the government is build from a coalition of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and Bündnis 90/Die Grünen. Chancellor is Gerhard Schröder (SPD), vice-chancellor is Joschka Fischer (Green Party). The federal president is Johannes Rau (SPD).
The latest election for the Bundestag was September 22, 2002. Gerhard Schröder led the coalition of SPD and Greens to an 11 seat victory over the conservative challengers headed by Edmund Stoiber (CSU). The coalition treaty for the second red-green coalition was signed October 16, 2002. With a significantly changed cabinet (see below), Schröder and Fischer began their second term.
In February 2003 elections took place in the states of Hesse and Lower Saxony, both leading to overwhelming victories for the conservatives. In Hesse, the CDU minister president Roland Koch[?] was re-elected, with his party CDU gaining enough seats to govern without the former coalition partner FDP. In Lower Saxony, the former SPD minister president Sigmar Gabriel[?] lost the elections, leading to an CDU-FDP-government headed by new minister president Christian Wulff[?] (CDU). Both elections are seen as symptomatic for a widespread criticism against the current federal red-green government. The protest against the Iraq war changed this situation a bit, favouring SPD and Greens.
The current federal cabinet (2003) consists of the following ministers.
For an alphabetical list of former ministers, see: List of ministers of the Federal Republic of Germany.