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Explaining Politics: Germany

Explaining Politics: Germany

Germany is a federal republic with a parliamentary system. The political system is outlined in the constitution of 1949, called the Grundgesetz (Basic Law).

As a federal state, Germany is made up of 16 Länder, each with its own state parliament, known as the Landtage. The interests of the state governments are then represented at national level in Bundesrat, the upper chamber of the legislature.

However, the central legislative body is the lower chamber of the federal parliament, known as the Bundestag, which currently has 709 members. All legislation originates in this body, and the consent of the Bundesrat is only required on matters directly affecting the interests of the states.

The judicial branch includes federal courts as well as the Federal Constitutional Court, which is responsible for ensuring that legislation is in in line with the constitution.

The central figure in German politics is that of the chancellor. This figure is not directly elected, but is instead nominated by the President, who is the formal chief of state. Upon nomination, the chancellor is then elected by majority vote in the Bundestag. The chancellor heads the government and is responsible for initiating government policy. He or she presides over a cabinet, with members normally drawn from majority parties in the Bundestag. The current chancellor is Angela Merkel, who has been in office since 2005.

A defining feature of German politics is government by coalition. This derives from the voting system, which is based on a mixed system of both plurality and proportionality, set up to ensure no single party has a majority in parliament.

Elections take place every four years. Due to the mixed nature of the system, voters cast two ballots: one for a candidate, and another for a party. This means that half of the Bundestag members are elected to represent single seat constituencies, and half are elected through proportional representation. In order for parties to enter parliament, they must achieve at least 5% of the vote.

In Germany, it is both difficult to form a government, and difficult to bring one down. This aims to ensure stability in political life. The chancellor can only be removed by a ‘constructive vote of no confidence’, which requires not only an absolute majority in the Bundestag to depose the chancellor, but also a majority in favour of a successor candidate. This process has been used only once in 1982 to remove Helmut Schmidt from office, replaced by Helmut Kohl.

The two traditionally dominant political parties are the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Since 2013 Germany has been ruled by a so-called ‘grand coalition’ of these two major parties, most recently renewed in March 2018, after a series of negotiations following the 2017 elections. Forming a government in Germany often requires lengthy coalition talks between parties. However, as the Bundestag has become increasingly fragmented, with more parties entering parliament, coalition talks have become even more difficult. After the 2017 elections, the coalition talks were the longest in history, lasting for several months.

The rise of new political forces in Germany suggests a fundamental transformation of politics may be on the horizon, bringing consequences both in forming governments as well as political life more generally. In the 2017 election, the AfD entered the Bundestag, making it the first far-right party to win seats in parliament since the 1950s. Equally, over the past year the Greens have gained momentum. With an excellent result in the European elections and a surge in approval ratings for co-leader Robert Habeck, a new political force in German politics appears to be awakening.

One of the defining issues in German politics in recent years has been immigration and how to deal with the migrant crisis in Europe. This has been a central agenda item and has consequently led to much political tension. Along with the rise of new political forces and the increasing salience of new issues such as environmental policy, an interesting few years lie ahead.

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