Politics of Germany
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Germany is a democratic, federal parliamentary republic, and federal legislative power is vested in the Bundestag (the parliament of Germany) and the Bundesrat (the representative body of the Länder, Germany's regional states).
There is a multi-party system that, since 1949, 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 German reunification in 1990.
The constitution emphasizes the protection of individual liberty in an extensive catalogue of human and civil rights and divides powers both between the federal and state levels and between the legislative, executive and judicial branches.
Germany was a founding member of the European Community in 1958, which became the EU in 1993. It is part of the Schengen Area, and has been a member of the eurozone since 1999. It is a member of the United Nations, NATO, the G8, the G20 and the OECD.
In 1990, the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic unified and became one country under the name and constitution of the former. The Government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl remained in place with some additions from the former GDR.
After 16 years of the Christian–Liberal coalition, led by Helmut Kohl, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) together with the Greens won the elections of 1998. SPD vice chairman Gerhard Schröder positioned himself as a centrist candidate, in contradiction to the leftist SPD chairman Oskar Lafontaine. The Kohl government was hurt at the polls by slower economic growth in the east in the previous two years, 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, resulted in some voter disaffection. Lafontaine left the government (and later his party) in early 1999. The CDU won in some important state elections but was hit in 2000 by a party donation scandal from the Kohl years. As a result of this Christian Democratic Union (CDU) crisis, Angela Merkel became chair.
The next election for the Bundestag was on 22 September 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 US 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Stoiber's unpopularity in the east, which cost the CDU crucial seats there.
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. On 20 April 2003, chancellor Schröder announced massive labor market reforms, called Agenda 2010, that cut unemployment benefits. Although these reforms sparked massive protests, they are now credited with being in part responsible for the relatively strong economic performance of Germany during the euro-crisis and the decrease in unemployment in Germany in the years 2006/7.
On 22 May 2005 the SPD received 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 new federal elections.
This took the republic by surprise, especially because the SPD was below 25% in polls at the time. The CDU quickly announced Angela Merkel as Christian Democrat candidate for chancellor, 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 18 September 2005.
The election results of 18 September were surprising because they differed widely from the polls of the previous weeks. The Christian Democrats lost votes compared to 2002, reaching only 35.2%, and failed to get a majority for a "black–yellow" government of CDU/CSU and liberal FDP. But the red–green coalition also failed to get a majority, with the SPD losing votes, but polling 34.2% and the greens staying at 8.1%. The Left reached 8.7% and entered the Bundestag, 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). Three party coalitions and coalitions involving The Left have been ruled out by all interested parties (including The Left itself). On 22 November 2005, Angela Merkel was sworn in by president Horst Köhler for the office of Bundeskanzlerin.
The existence of the grand coalition on federal level helped 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 had no majority in the Bundesrat and depended on FDP votes on important issues. In November 2008, the SPD re-elected Franz Müntefering as its chair and made Frank-Walter Steinmeier its leading candidate for the federal election in September 2009.
As a result of 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. The CDU/CSU was rather stable. The three smaller parties thus have more seats in the German Bundestag than ever before, with the liberal party FDP winning 14.6% of votes.
The CDU/CSU and FDP together held 332 seats (of 622 total seats) and had been in coalition since 27 October 2009. Angela Merkel was re-elected as chancellor, and Guido Westerwelle served as the foreign minister and vice chancellor of Germany. After being elected into the federal government, the FDP suffered from heavy losses in the following state elections. The FDP had promised to lower taxes in the electoral campaign, but after being part of the coalition they had to concede that this was not possible due to the economic crisis. Because of the losses, Guido Westerwelle had to resign as chair of the FDP in favor of Philipp Rösler, Federal minister of health, who was consequently appointed as vice chancellor. Shortly after, Philipp Rösler changed office and became federal minister of economics and technology.
Since their electoral defeat, the Social Democrats have been led by the new party chairman Sigmar Gabriel, a former federal minister and state prime minister, and by Frank-Walter Steinmeier as the head of the parliamentary group. The Greens and The Left both suffer from some internal frictions. It is difficult to tell what the SPD defeat in federal politics means for the state elections: both big parties did well in some but not in others. Since 2011 the Greens have their first prime minister, the one of Baden-Württemberg, in a Green–SPD government.
Germany has seen increased political activity by citizens outside the established political parties with respect to local and environmental issues such as the location of Stuttgart 21, a railway hub, and construction of Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport.
The 18th federal elections in Germany have been succeeded by the renewed re-election of Angela Merkel and her Christian democratic parliamentary group of the parties CDU and CSU, reaching 41.5% of all votes. Their former coalition partner FDP did not reach a 5% threshold, thereby not gaining any seats in the Bundestag.
Not having reached an absolute majority the CDU/CSU, they formed a grand coalition together with the social-democratic SPD after long coalition talks, making the head of the party Sigmar Gabriel vice-chancellor and federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy. Together they hold 504 of a total 631 seats (CDU/CSU 311 & SPD 193). The only two opposition parties are The Left (64 seats) and Alliance '90/The Greens (63 seats).
The Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany is the constitution of Germany. It was formally approved on 8 May 1949, and, with the signature of the Allies of World War II on 12 May, came into effect on 23 May, as the constitution of those states of West Germany that were initially included within the Federal Republic. The 1949 Basic Law is a response to the perceived flaws of the 1919 Weimar Constitution, which failed to prevent the rise of the Nazi party in 1933. Since 1990 in the course of the reunification process after fall of the Berlin Wall the Basic Law also applies to the states of East Germany.
Head of state
In Germany's parliamentary system of government the Federal Chancellor runs the government and the politics of the day. However, the German President has a role which is more than ceremonial. The Federal President, by their actions and public appearances, represents the state itself, its existence, its legitimacy, and unity. The President's office involves an integrative role and the control function of upholding the law and the constitution. It has also a "political reserve function" for times of crisis in the parliamentary system of government. The Federal President gives direction to general political and societal debates and has some important "reserve powers" in case of political instability (such as those provided for by Article 81 of the Basic Law). Under Article 59 (1) of the Basic Law (German Constitution), the Federal President represents the Federal Republic of Germany in matters of international law, concludes treaties with foreign states on its behalf and accredits diplomats. All federal laws must be signed by the President before they can come into effect; the president does not have a veto, but the conditions for refusing to sign a law on the basis of unconstitutionality are the subject of debate.
Head of government
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. The other members of the government are the Federal Ministers; they are chosen by the Chancellor. 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 is the Vice-Chancellor (Vizekanzler). This office itself is hardly important but often indicates who is the main cabinet member of the smaller coalition partner.
The German Cabinet (Bundeskabinett or Bundesregierung) is the chief executive body of the federal republic of Germany. It consists of the chancellor and the cabinet ministers. The fundamentals of the cabinet's organization are set down in articles 62–69 of the Basic Law.
Federal legislative power is divided between the Bundestag and the Bundesrat. The Bundestag is directly elected by the German people, while the Bundesrat represents the governments of the regional states (Länder). The federal legislature has powers of exclusive jurisdiction and concurrent jurisdiction with the states in areas specified in the constitution.
The Bundestag is more powerful than the Bundesrat and only needs 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, however, the agreement of the Bundesrat in the legislative process is often required, since federal legislation frequently 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.
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, which Germans call "personalised proportional representation." 299 members represent single-seat constituencies and are elected by a first past the post electoral system. Parties that obtain fewer constituency seats than their national share of the vote 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 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 eligible for non-constituency seats 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 14 August 1949. Following reunification, elections for the first all-German Bundestag were held on 2 December 1990. The last federal election was held on 22 September 2013.
The judicial system comprises three types of courts.
- Ordinary courts, dealing with criminal and most civil cases, are the most numerous by far. The Federal Court of Justice of Germany (Bundesgerichtshof) is the highest ordinary court and also the highest court of appeals.
- Specialized courts hear cases related to administrative, labour, social, fiscal, and patent law.
- Constitutional courts focus on judicial review and constitutional interpretation. The Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) is the highest court dealing with constitutional matters.
The main difference between the Federal Constitutional Court and the Federal Court of Justice is that the Federal Constitutional Court may only be called if a constitutional matter within a case is in question (e.g. a possible violation of human rights in a criminal trial), while the Federal Court of Justice may be called in any case.
Germany maintains a network of 229 diplomatic missions abroad and holds relations with more than 190 countries. It is the largest contributor to the budget of the European Union (providing 27%) and third largest contributor to the United Nations (providing 8%). Germany is a member of the NATO defence alliance, the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the G8, the G20, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Germany has played a leading role in the European Union since its inception and has maintained a strong alliance with France since the end of World War II. The alliance was especially close in the late 1980s and early 1990s under the leadership of Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl and Socialist François Mitterrand. Germany is at the forefront of European states seeking to advance the creation of a more unified European political, defence, and security apparatus. For a number of decades after WWII, the Federal Republic of Germany kept a notably low profile in international relations, because of both its recent history and its occupation by foreign powers.
During the Cold War, Germany's partition by the Iron Curtain made it a symbol of East–West tensions and a political battleground in Europe. However, Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik was a key factor in the détente of the 1970s. In 1999, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's government defined a new basis for German foreign policy by taking a full part in the decisions surrounding the NATO war against Yugoslavia and by sending German troops into combat for the first time since World War II.
The governments of Germany and the United States are close political allies. The 1948 Marshall Plan and strong cultural ties have crafted a strong bond between the two countries, although Schröder's very vocal opposition to the Iraq War suggested the end of Atlanticism and a relative cooling of German–American relations. The two countries are also economically interdependent: 8.8% of German exports are US-bound and 6.6% of German imports originate from the US. Other signs of the close ties include the continuing position of German–Americans as the largest ethnic group in the US. and the status of Ramstein Air Base (near Kaiserslautern) as the largest US military community outside the US.
The policy on foreign aid is an important area of German foreign policy. It is formulated by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and carried out by the implementing organisations. The German government sees development policy as a joint responsibility of the international community. It is the world's fourth biggest aid donor after the United States, the United Kingdom and France. Germany spent 0.37 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on development, which is below the government's target of increasing aid to 0.51 per cent of GDP by 2010.
Germany comprises sixteen states that are collectively referred to as Länder. Due to differences in size and population the subdivision of these states varies, especially between city states (Stadtstaaten) and states with larger territories (Flächenländer). For regional administrative purposes five states, namely Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia and Saxony, consist of a total of 22 Government Districts (Regierungsbezirke). As of 2009 Germany is divided into 403 districts (Kreise) on municipal level, these consist of 301 rural districts and 102 urban districts.
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