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Politics of Germany

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The Federal Republic of Germany (in German: Bundesrepublik Deutschland) is a federal representative democracy.

Its political system is laid out in the 1949 constitution, the Grundgesetz (Basic Law), which remained in effect with minor amendments after 1990's German Reunification. The constitution emphasizes the protection of individual liberty in an extensive catalogue of human rights and also divides powers both between the federal and state levels and between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. In many ways, the 1949 Grundgesetz is a strong response to the perceived flaws of the failed 1919 Weimar Republic, which collapsed in favor of the dictatorship of the Third Reich.

Contents

Federalism

The Federal Republic (Bundesrepublik) consists of 16 federal states (Bundesländer). The Grundgesetz prescribes that legislature is to be handled by the states except where explicitly stated in the Grundgesetz itself. This principle has been more or less reversed in practice through many amendments of the constitution since 1949, leaving basically only police, education, cultural and communal affairs to be handled by state legislature. The executive branch, though, is still mainly organized at the state level, which means that laws that the state civil services operate under and enforce are to a large extent federal laws. This strengthens the states' role in federal legislation via the Bundesrat.

The political systems of the individual states are prescribed by state constitutions, but resemble that of the federal level to a certain extent. The heads of the federal states' governments are called Ministerpräsidenten (Minister-President) or --in case of the three city-states-- Regierender Bürgermeister (Governor-Mayor, in Berlin and Bremen) or Erster Bürgermeister (First Mayor, in Hamburg). They each form a state cabinet as well, although it is usually much smaller than the federal government. Elections for the parliaments of the Bundesländer occur every four to five years, depending on the state.

Federal institutions

The Bundeskanzler (Federal Chancellor) heads the Bundesregierung (Federal Cabinet) and thus the executive branch of the federal government. He is elected by and responsible to the Bundestag, Germany's parliament. Germany, like the United Kingdom, can thus be classified as a parliamentary system.

The Chancellor cannot be removed from office during a 4-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 between 1969 and 1982, the Chancellor has always been the candidate of the party with the most seats in parliament, supported by a coalition of two or more parties with a majority in the parliament. He appoints a Vice-Chancellor (Vizekanzler), who is a member of his cabinet, usually the Foreign Minister. When there is a coalition government (which has, so far, always been the case, except for the period of 1957 to 1961), the Vice-Chancellor usually belongs to the smaller party of the coalition.

The heads of governments may change the structure of ministries whenever and however they see fit. For example, in the middle of January 2001, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture was renamed to Ministry of Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture as a consequence of the BSE crisis. For that measure, competences from the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Health were transferred to the new Ministry of Consumer Protection.

Subordinate to the cabinet is the Civil service of Germany.

By contrast, the duties of the Bundespräsident (Federal President) are largely representative and ceremonial; power is exercised by the Chancellor. The President is elected every 5 years on May 23 by the Federal Assembly (Bundesversammlung), a special body convoked only for this purpose, comprising the entire Bundestag and an equal number of state delegates selected especially for this purpose. In May 2004, Horst Köhler of the CDU/Christian Democratic Union of Germany was elected. The reason that the President is not popularly elected is to prevent him from gaining enough popular legitimacy to circumvent the constitution, as occurred with the Weimar Republic.

The Bundestag (Federal Diet) is Germany's parliament. It is elected for a 4-year term, consists of at least twice the number of electoral districts -- 328 in 1998, being reduced to 299 -- in the country. (More deputies may be admitted when parties' directly elected seats exceed their proportional representation.) Elections for an all-German Bundestag were first held on December 2, 1990, and again on October 16, 1994 and September 27, 1998. A total of 669 deputies were seated after the 1998 national elections. A party must have 5% of the vote or at least three direct elected deputies to be represented in the Bundestag. This rule, often called the "five percent hurdle", is part of the constitution to prevent political fragmentation and strong minor parties, as this was considered a major reason for the inefficacy of the Weimar Republic's Reichstag.

The Bundesrat (Federal Council) is the representation of the state governments at the federal level. It consists of 69 members who are delegates of the 16 Bundesländer and usually, but not necessarily include the 16 Minister Presidents themselves.

The legislature has powers of exclusive jurisdiction and concurrent jurisdiction with the Länder in areas specifically enumerated by the Basic Law. The Bundestag bears the major responsibility. The necessity for the Bundesrat to concur on legislation is limited to bills treating revenue shared by federal and state governments and those imposing responsibilities on the states, although in practice, this is quite common.

Since the political color of the Bundesrat (which depends on the various state elections that occur independently of the federal ones) is quite frequently inverse to that of the Bundestag, it has, in recent years, become more and more an arena for the political parties as opposed to one for state interests, as the constitution intended.

Germany has an independent judiciary branch. Since the independence of the judiciary is historically older than democracy in Germany, the organization of courts is traditionally strong, and almost all state actions are subject to judicial review. Besides a so-called "ordinary" judicial branch that handles civil and criminal cases, which is in turn comprised of four levels of courts up to the Bundesgerichtshof in a fairly complex appeals system, there are separate branches for administrative, tax, labor, and social security issues, each with their own hierarchies. Courts are generally in the hands of the states, except for the highest courts of each branch, which are federal, respectively, to maintain a certain degree of unity in jurisdiction.

In addition, Germany has a powerful Constitutional Court, the Bundesverfassungsgericht. This is somewhat unique since the Grundgesetz stipulates in principle that every person may file a complaint to that court when his constitutional rights, especially the human rights, have been violated by the state. Such actions can include laws passed by the legislative branch, court decisions, or acts of the administration. While in practice, only a small percentage of these constitutional complaints (Verfassungsbeschwerden) are successful, the Constitutional Court is known to frequently annoy both the executive and the legislative branches with far-reaching decisions. The Constitutional Court also handles several other procedures such as disputes between state institutions over their constitutional powers.

Political parties

The following parties currently participate in the Bundestag, sorted by the number of seats (refer to the following links for details):

Recent election issues

The SPD in the 1998 election emphasized commitment to reducing persistently high unemployment and appealed to voters' desire for new faces after 16 years of Kohl government. Schröder positioned himself as a centrist "Third Way" candidate in the mold of Britain's Tony Blair. The CDU/CSU stood on its record of economic performance and experience in foreign policy. The Kohl government was hurt at the polls by slower growth in the east in the past two years, widening the economic gap between east and west. The final margin of victory was sufficiently high to permit a "red-green" coalition of the SPD with the Greens, bringing the Greens into a national government for the first time.

The first months of the new government were marked by policy disputes between the moderate and traditional left wings of the SPD, resulting in some voter disaffection. The first state election after the federal election was held in Hesse in February, 1999. The CDU increased its vote by 3.5 percent to emerge as the largest party, and was able to replace a SPD/Green coalition with a CDU/FDP coalition. The result was interpreted in part as a referendum on the federal government's proposed new citizenship law, which would have eased requirements for long-time foreign residents to obtain citizenship, and permitted them to retain their original citizenship as well. In other state elections in 2000 and 2001, the respective SPD- or CDU-led coalition governments were re-elected into power.

Since 1998, the government has been built as a coalition of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and Bündnis 90/Die Grünen. The chancellor is Gerhard Schröder (SPD) and the vice-chancellor is Joschka Fischer (Green Party). The federal president is Horst Köhler (CDU).

The latest election for the Bundestag was September 22, 2002. Gerhard Schröder led the coalition of SPD and Greens to an 11 seat victory over the conservative challengers headed by Edmund Stoiber (CSU). The coalition treaty for the second red-green coalition was signed October 16, 2002. With a significantly changed cabinet (see below), Schröder and Fischer began their second term.

In February 2003 elections took place in the states of Hesse and Lower Saxony, both leading to overwhelming victories for the conservatives. In Hesse, the CDU minister president Roland Koch was re-elected, with his party CDU gaining enough seats to govern without the former coalition partner FDP. In Lower Saxony, the former SPD minister president Sigmar Gabriel lost the elections, leading to an CDU-FDP-government headed by new minister president Christian Wulff (CDU). Both elections are seen as symptomatic for a widespread criticism against the current federal red-green government. The protest against the Iraq war changed this situation a bit, favouring SPD and Greens.

The latest election in the state of Bavaria led to a landslide victory of the conservatives, gaining two thirds of parliamentary seats.

In April 2003, chancellor Schröder announced massive cuts in the social systems, called Agenda 2010. The changes include much-disputed reforms to the labour market and unemployment system, known as Hartz I - Hartz IV.

The European elections on June 13, 2004 brought a staggering defeat for the Social Democrats, who polled only slightly more than 21 percent, the lowest election result for the SPD in a nationwide election since the Second World War. Liberals, Greens, conservatives and the far left were the winners of the European election in Germany, because voters were disillusioned by high unemployment and cuts in social security, while the governing SPD party seems to be concerned with quarrels between the party wings and unable to give any clear direction. Many observers believe that this election marked the beginning of the end of the Schroeder government and indicates a process in which the SPD party seems to shrink and/or fall apart.

In September 2004 elections were held in the states of Saarland, Brandenburg and Saxony. In the Saar region the governing CDU could remain in power and gain one additional seat in the parliament. The SPD has lost seven seats, while the Liberals and Greens could re-enter the parliament. Remarkably and most surprising the National Democratic Party received about 4 % of the votes (but did not receive a seat in the parliament, because they were not elected by at least 5 % of the voters). This was a big surprise, since this "far right"-party was the last time in a German parliament in the 1960s, and in the last decades had received results of only 1 to 2 percent..

Two weeks later, elections in the eastern states Brandenburg and Saxony were held: the ruling parties overall lost votes, but they remained in power. Due to the German election rules, the ruling CDU in Saxony was forced (due to their losses at the ballots) to form a coalition with the 9,8 % party SPD as a junior partner, which has even topped its worst result (elections in 1999: 10,2 %). In Brandenburg the CDU remained junior partner of the SPD. The fact that in Brandenburg the right party DVU re-entered and in Saxony the far-right party NPD entered the state parliaments caused many worries in the traditional political parties.

The latest state elections in the eastern region of Germany showed that not only the governing Social Democrats were losing the support of the voters, but even the conservatives: in the fall of 2004 the voters in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) chose their local parliaments and mayors. These elections were seen as critical for the federal government, since in NRW the Social Democrats and the Greens are forming one of the last state coalitions which is supporting chancellor Schröder and due to the polls the conservatives could takeover (in the near-by elections next year in the May 2005) NRW for the first time in more than three decades. Although local elections cannot be compared with federal or even state elections, all parties eagerly began to search for the best elements out of the results: the CDU declared itself as a winner, because the conservatives received the most votes (but lost about 7 %) and the SPD declared itself as a winner because they did better than in the latest polls (but received the worst result since World War II) and got several mayors back in the elections, which where lost in 1999 to the conservatives. On May 22nd as predicted the SPD took a devastating defeat in its former heartland, Northrhine-Westfalia, and half an hour after the election results were clear Franz Müntefering, the SPD chairman announced that the chancellor would clear the way for premature elections in the fall of 2005. On the following Monday the CDU announced that Angela Merkel would be the conservative candidate, aspiring to be the first female chancellor in Germany ever.

Referring to the political observers the race for the next anticipated federal election in 2005 is now more open: it seems to be that the gap for the Social Democrats has found its end and due to the fact that the conservative parties CDU and CSU have some strong controversy debates over key-issues like the reform of the health insurance, the taxation system and so on. Moreover, there may be new serious contenders in the 2006 federal election: The National Democratic Party and a smaller right-wing party, the Deutsche Volksunion (DVU), plan to leapfrog the "five-percent hurdle" on a common party ticket, while on the left side, the Labour and Social Justice Party (WASG), a new party, plan to win enough votes from voters dissented with the harsh cuts in the social system.WASG under the leadership of Oskar Lafontaine, a former SPD chairman who left the SPD in anger is planning to align with the PDS for the coming federal elections on September 18th 2005.Most political observers assume that the SPD will lose the support of many disillusioned voters, it is highly unlikely that Gerhard Schroeder will be reelected.

See also

External links

fr:Système politique allemand lt:Vokietijos politinė sistema ja:ドイツの政治 pt:Política da Alemanha

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