The German political and electoral system: how does it work?

F.A.Q.

In the run-up to the German federal election of 26 September 2021 (BTW21), we take a look at the nuts and bolts of the German political and electoral system.

This article is part of our dossier "Germany has voted - The aftermath of the 2021 German federal election".

 

  1. What are the Länder?
  2. What is the role of the Bundestag in the German political system?
  3. How do the Germans vote and why is the electoral system so complicated?
  4. Is it possible to vote by proxy in Germany?
  5. What powers does the Chancellor have, and how is he/she/they elected?
  6. How are coalitions formed and how do they work?
  7. Which parties do have seats in the Bundestag?
  8. What is the role of the President of the German Republic?

1. What are the Länder?

Germany is a federal republic, which means that the Länder work more like small states with a lot of competences. There are 16 federal states in Germany, including three city-states, Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen. They each have a Parliament (Landtag), a constitution and a government, which is headed up by a Minister-President. They have autonomy in many areas, such as education, the police, social benefits, the environment, religious affairs and defining cultural policy. Each Land has its own public television channel, for instance. The Federation (the Bund) has exclusive competency in foreign affairs, defence, justice, monetary policy and employment law. This division of competences is not always clear and in some cases, there is an overlap of competences between the various levels of governance.

The Länder are represented at federal level by the Bundesrat (Federal Council), which provides a second reading on draft legislation approved by the Bundestag. It is made up of 69 members from the regional governments. Each Land has 3 to 6 votes, depending on population size. Additionally, all Länder have an institutional representation in Berlin, giving them a link between regional affairs and the federal level. They all also have their own representation to the European Union in Brussels.

Missing media item.
The 16 Länder of Germany.

2. What is the role of the Bundestag in the German political system?

The central institution of the German political system is the Bundestag (the federal parliament), which has met in Berlin’s Reichstag building since 1999 (before then, its seat was in Bonn). The Parliament has an extremely important role: the Chancellor requires the confidence of the Members of Parliament (Mitglieder des Bundestages, in German) and generally requires a coalition of at least two parties. The Bundestag has at least 598 members, elected for a term of four years. It shares legislative and constituent power with the Bundesrat. The members of the Bundestag vote through laws, ratify treaties, adopt the federal budget, but also approve the engagement of the Federal Armed Forces (Bundeswehr). They have many government control powers, by means of parliamentary sessions (plenaries and committees), but also through committees of investigation. These committees, which can be set up by request of at least 25% of deputies, are created on an ad-hoc basis to examine government action on specific subjects. They may interview experts, gather evidence and then draft a report, which is debated by the Bundestag.

The annual budget of the Bundestag is a bit less than one billion euros, a significant amount that also reflects the major importance of its members and their teams in day-to-day democratic life in Germany – by way of comparison, the French National Assembly has a budget of 560 million euros in 2021.

Missing media item.
Plenary session at the German Bundestag in February 2020.

3. How do the Germans vote and how does the electoral system look like?

Germany uses a mixed voting system: it is a system of proportional representation combined with elements of first-past-the-post voting. This means that in Germany, voters have two votes, represented by two columns on the same ballot paper. The first vote (Erststimme) is for the candidate in the voter’s constituency and aims to ensure a personalised local representation. The second vote (Zweitstimme) is for a list presented by a party: a list of candidates (Landesliste). This second vote determines the results achieved by each of the parties and is used to share out the seats of the Bundestag proportionately and to secure a parliamentary representation that reflects the political weight of the various parties.

Depending on the first-vote results, a certain number of deputies-elect from the lists of each party take up their seats in the Bundestag, in a way that the Parliament reflects the balance achieved by the second vote. It is possible for a party to win more seats in the first-past-the-post vote than it is awarded in the proportional share-out. In such cases, the party retains its “overhang seats” (Überhangmandat) and “balancing seats” (Ausgleichsmandat) are allocated to the other parties to maintain the proportional representation. After the most recent parliamentary election of 2017, for instance, the Bundestag had 709 MPs instead of 598, as 111 seats had to be added.

Eventually, the distribution of seats in the Bundestag reflects the results of the proportional vote. The results rarely give any party an absolute majority, meaning that a coalition must be formed.

Missing media item.
Ballot of the 2017 German federal election.

4. Is it possible to vote by post in Germany?

Yes, postal voting works as follows: the voters apply for a postal vote to their local town hall, which send them a voting pack a few weeks prior to the election. This pack consists of a ballot slip, a small blue envelope to ensure that the vote is kept secret, a large red envelope into which the voter can place the small envelope containing the ballot slip (Stimmzettel) and the signed postal voting paper (Wahlschein). It is all sent (within Germany free of charge) by post to the polling station. On the day of election, the large red envelopes are opened, inclusion on the electoral list is verified, the vote is confirmed and the small envelopes containing the ballot slips (still sealed) are placed into a sealed box. They are then counted along with the other votes.

Up until 2009, postal voters had to explain why they wished to vote by post (inability to travel, extended absence, etc.), but since then, voters have no longer been asked to justify their application for a postal vote. In 1957, 4.9% of the electorate chose to vote by post. In the 2017 election, more than a quarter of all voters (28.6%) used this option.

Germans living abroad have to apply for entry in the voters’ register to be able to vote by post.

Missing media item.
Postal voting documents for the German 16th Bundestag election (2005).

5. What powers does the Chancellor have, and how is he/she/they elected?

Although the Federal Republic of Germany does have a President, the country’s most powerful political representative is in reality the Chancellor (Bundeskanzler or Bundeskanzlerin). Under the constitution of 1949, the Chancellor’s role is to “determine and assume responsibility for general policy”. He/she/they directs the action of the government and stands central to the executive power. As head of diplomacy, the Chancellor also represents Germany overseas.

How is he/she/they elected? The Chancellor is not elected by direct universal suffrage, but by the Bundestag, by the majority of its members and in a secret ballot, by proposal of the federal President. The Chancellor is elected every four years, at the same time as the Bundestag. Most usually, the Chancellor-elect is the lead candidate of the largest political group (or the largest political group within the coalition) in the federal election. In this way, voting aims to ensure the stability and efficacy of the Chancellor’s term in office and that only a candidate who can guarantee support of an absolute majority of votes in the Parliament can be elected.

After the election, the new Chancellor is appointed by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany and is sworn in before the Bundestag. He/she/they may select ministers and allocate their areas of competence. The Chancellor may be removed only by a “constructive vote of no-confidence” of the Bundestag: in such cases, the Parliament must elect a successor by majority of its members. Germany does not impose a limit on the number of times an individual may hold the Chancellor’s office, a matter of debate in political circles. Under this system, Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel both remained in power for 16 years.

The reason for the Chancellor’s predominant role lies in Germany’s history: in the wake of the Second World War, the system was intended to avoid concentrating too much power in the hands of one individual and promote a strong and stable parliamentary regime. The scope of the powers of the Chancellor, alongside the President, who holds an essentially symbolic position, prompted Konrad Adenauer to refer to the German institutional system as a “Chancellor democracy” (Kanzlerdemokratie).

6. How are coalitions formed and how do they work?

In Germany, it is virtually always necessary to form a coalition between the elected members of two or three parties to build a majority big enough to elect a government and the Chancellor. Traditionally carried out by the party with the most votes in the election, negotiations to form a majority government centre on a coalition contract in which two or three parties agree on the laws and reforms to be implemented during their term in office. Ministerial posts are divided up in line with the relative political weight of the coalition members, which is also a key subject of the discussions. The party with the most votes (or another party with enough votes to be able to bring together a majority around it) may enter into a number of exploratory discussions (Sondierungen) to evaluate possible alliances with the other parties, before beginning more advanced negotiations with one or two of these parties with a view to forming a coalition (Koalitionsverhandlungen). This process can take several weeks, even months. During discussions, the parties establish their common objectives, red lines, their points of disagreement and the joint projects on which they intend to work together. This traditionally leads to a “coalition contract” which becomes the basis for government action.

The coalition logic, based on constructing a stable majority with a clear mandate and a roadmap written by the coalition partners, gives significant political weight to two or three coalition parties – assuming, of course, that the negotiations went well, particularly in the case of smaller parties. The work of the coalition revolves around regular sessions of an informal committee known as the “coalition committee” (Koalitionsausschuss) comprised of representatives of the member parties of the coalition, the Chancellor and the Vice Chancellor. The committee rules in particular on laws under discussion and on possible political disagreements.

7. Which parties have seats in the Bundestag?

Only parties which reach the threshold of 5% of votes are allowed to take their seats in the Bundestagto avoid excessive fragmentation of the Parliament and to make it possible to form a coalition that is fit to govern. In the most recent election, on 24 September 2017, seven different political parties in six political groups entered Parliament, including a far-right one, the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland).

Parties represented in the Bundestag are thus listed according to the current size of their respective parliamentary group):

  • CDU/CSU (Conservatives): created after the Second World War, this is the major centre-right group, made up of the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) and the CSU (Christian Social Union), its Bavarian counterpart.
  • SPD (the Social Democrats): in existence since the 19th century, it led the government several times in the 1970s and has governed in coalition with the Conservatives since 2013.
  • AfD (far-right): a Eurosceptic and openly anti-immigration party created in 2013, AfD entered the Bundestag in the 2017 election.
  • FDP (the Liberals), the Liberal party. Created in 1948, it lost all its seats in the Bundestag in 2013, but rejoined Parliament in the 2017 election.
  • Die Linke (far left): founded in 2007, Die Linke is located to the left of the Greens and SPD in the political spectrum.
  • Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (Greens): formed after German reunification, the party came about as a result of a merger between two parties in 1993: Alliance 90 (Bündnis 90), an alliance of citizen movements and opposition groups in the German Democratic Republic which was transformed in a party in 1991, and The Greens (Die Grünen), an ecological, pacifist and anti-nuclear party, established in 1980 in West Germany.

8. What is the role of the President of the Federal Republic of Germany?

The Federal President is the head of state. In Germany, the President’s position is mainly, however not only, representative. In theory, the President is bound by an obligation of political neutrality and is not supposed to get involved in party affairs. Although the President’s powers are limited, the role is nonetheless an influential one. The Federal President is responsible for examining every law before it enters into force. The President may in fact refuse to sign off a law if he/she/they considers that it runs counter to the fundamental law. One of the President’s main tasks is to officially appoint the Chancellor. The President is not elected directly by the people, but by a Federal Assembly (Bundesversammlung) made up of Members of the Bundestag and of the Bundesrat, the sole responsibility of which is to elect the President for five years. To be elected as President, a person must be aged 40 or over.

Since 2017, the position of the President of the Federal Republic of Germany has been held by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, former foreign affairs minister.

Missing media item.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, President of the German Federal Republic since 2017.

 

This F.A.Q. was translated by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union office and adapted by Eva van de Rakt, Zora Siebert and Joan Lanfranco, based on the original French version published by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Paris, France office.