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Government, Politics and Legal Systems for Expats in Germany

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: September 2013

Government and Politics

Germany is a federal parliamentary republic consisting of 16 states (Länder). The head of state is the president, currently Joachim Gauck. The president is elected every five years by a special convention of Bundestag (lower house) members and state delegates. The president nominates the prime minister and consents to the appointment and dismissal of Federal Cabinet members that the prime minister proposes. Other than this, the president’s role is mostly ceremonial.

The most powerful figure in German politics is the federal chancellor (usually known as simply ‘chancellor’), currently Angela Merkel. The chancellor is elected by parliament, and is therefore usually the leader of the party with the greatest number of seats. Chancellors serve for four year terms. The chancellor proposes the other members of the executive, the Federal Cabinet, to the president, who will almost always assent to the proposals.

The chancellor is head of the Federal Cabinet. He or she directs members of the Cabinet and works in conjunction with them to take executive action, formulate bills and ensure that they are passed through the legislature. The chancellor sets out broad policy guidelines for each cabinet minister to follow, but ministers have a degree of autonomy as to how they operate.

The legislature is bicameral. The lower house, the Bundestag (‘Federal Diet’), is comprised of 598 seats. Bundestag members are directly elected every four years by means of a system of proportional representation. Any party that gains 5% of the vote is also entitled to representation.

The upper house of parliament is the Bundesrat (‘Federal Council’.) Members of the Bundesrat are not elected but appointed by state governments. Each state appoints from three to six members, approximately tallying with the state’s total population. Most federal laws have to undergo Bundesrat approval.

There are a lot of political parties in Germany. The most important national parties are the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Free Democratic Party (FDP), the Left and the Green Alliance. There is usually a coalition between one of these parties and some of the minor ones to form a majority in the two houses.

Politically, Germany is built on consensus rather than an adversarial system.

Germany is not a very centralised country. In parallel with the federal political arrangement Berlin, the capital, does not perform all the chief functions of state. The financial centre is in Frankfurt, the judicial capital is Karlsruhe in Baden-Württemberg and Bonn, the former West German capital, is called a ‘federal city’ operating as a deputy capital of sorts.

Legal Systems

The German legal system, like all those in Continental Europe, is a civil law system, that is, laws are based on codified documents rather than subject to precedent and judicial decision. The legal system is based on the Basic Law of 1949, which is effectively the constitution.

The highest German court for criminal and most civil cases sits in Karlsruhe in the state of Baden-Württemberg. This is the Federal Court of Justice, and it acts as the ultimate court appellate for points of law. Below this court, each larger region has its Higher Regional Court (Oberlandsgericht), which acts as a normal court of appeal. Subordinate to this are the state courts, which handle both trials and appeals, and the district courts, which deal with minor trials only.

The Federal Constitutional Court, also in Karlsruhe, is restricted to constitutional matters such as deciding whether new legislation is compatible with the constitution. It also resolves constitutional disputes between the federal constitution and individual state constitutions.



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