Sunday, 1 January 2012

Germany’s Government: An introduction

Germany is a democratic federal republic. In other words, it has a president, a federal government, 16 states and a substantial bureaucracy to keep it all going.

Each state has its own parliament and prime minister (or mayor for the city states) and is responsible for key decisions such as education policy (both school and higher education), policing, local transport and public broadcasting – to name but a few.  Funding is via a local income tax (which the state government has powers to set) as well as a redistributive mechanism at federal level.

Parliament (Bundestag) & Federal Elections
The real power on a national level lies with the Bundestag, the directly elected national parliament. Elections occur in a 4 year cycle – although new elections can be called if the government loses a vote of confidence. As the constitution offers no other way to dissolve parliament, German Chancellors have been known to ask their own party to vote against them to trigger elections (as in 2005 with Gerhard Schröder).

Federal Elections are based on a form of proportional representation: mixed-member proportional representation. In Germany, voters are asked to vote twice in each federal election – once for an individual candidate for their constituency and again for a party. Approximately half of the seats come from the first vote in direct first-past-the-post elections, and the rest from state-based party lists. The overall proportion of each states’ members (of both kinds) must reflect the results of the party list vote – with one exception. This is where it gets complicated.

Skip this section if the vagaries of voting systems do not interest you...

Back? Great.

The targeted number of members of the Bundestag is 598, with 299 constituencies.

This is the individual state’s representative body on a national level.  They have a veto on any legislation that affects the states directly (which, in practice, is the majority of legislation). Each state has a number of votes depending on its population, and the representatives that wield these votes must come from the state parliaments.

The President
The president is a largely ceremonial and bureaucratic position. He or she signs laws but can (and should) only refuse to sign if he believes it to be unconstitutional, referring them to the constitutional court. Nonetheless, what the president says and does holds weight – this has got a number of them into trouble (see my coverage of the most recent scandal).
The president is elected in secret and without debate by a combination of all members of the Bundestag and an equal number of representatives selected by the state parliaments. Even though there is no requirement for a politician to hold the post, because politicians (or representatives of politicians) themselves elect the president and almost always vote along party lines, every president so far has come from a party political background.
The president is expected to give up any party affiliation whilst in office. Despite this, having a president of the right political affiliation is seen as an advantage to a party.

The Federal Constitutional Court
This is the highest court in the land. Its role is to decide on disputes that may occur between the other branches of government as well as examine legislation that may violate the constitution. 16 judges sit on two courts and are each elected to 12-year terms. The Bundestag elect half of the judges, while the rest are elected by the Bundesrat. 

No comments:

Post a Comment