Notes on Germany Basic Principles

Notes on Germany

Basic Principles

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Germany consolidated as a nation-state relatively late, being formed as a federation of German-speaking states hammered together by Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the 1860s.  Factors which created a sense of national identity were a common language and culture, collective memory of domination and occupation by France, and a sense of national pride at Germany’s rapid growth as an industrial power under Bismarck and quick victories in wars against Austria, Denmark, and France by 1870.

After defeats in World Wars I and II discredited militarism and authoritarian government, the people of West Germany (occupied by France, the UK, and the USA) embraced democracy in the form of the Basic Law.  The Basic Law served, and still serves, as a constitution for the Federal Republic of Germany, which now includes the former East Germany (which had been occupied by the Soviet Union and organized as a Soviet satellite state).

Under the Basic Law Germany is organized as a federal republic, with sixteen states which have their own powers separate from those of the national government.  It is a parliamentary democracy with an elected president (Head of State) who serves in a mostly ceremonial role, but can intervene in the political system in certain narrowly defined circumstances.


The German parliament is bi-cameral and asymmetrical, the directly-elected Bundestag being the house with the most power and the Bundesrat, whose members are appointed by the state governments, having the power to vote on or veto legislation dealing with the states.  The Bundestag chooses the Chancellor (Head of Government), who functions much as a prime minister does in France or the UK.  The Chancellor appoints a cabinet and forms a government, which proposes legislation, prepares a budget, and administers the bureaucracy.

Since the Basic Law went into effect in 1947 no single party has won a majority of votes in the Bundestag, so all Chancellors have been the product of coalitions.  An interesting feature of the German system is the “Constructive” vote of no confidence.  Under this system any vote of no confidence must name the person who is to take the Chancellor’s place.  This makes it harder to create a majority in the Bundestag to remove a Chancellor, and adds stability to the system.

The president of Germany is selected by the Bundesrat for a five-year term.  He usually stays out of politics, but may intervene to appoint a Chancellor if the Bundestag is unable to name one.

The Bundesrat votes only on legislation affecting the states (about half of all bills each year), and thus can veto bills passed by the Bundestag.  However, the Bundestag can override the Bundesrat’svetoes by a two-thirds majority vote.

Electoral System

Germany uses a “mixed member proportional” electoral system in which roughly half of the Bundestag is elected from single member districts on a first past the post basis, and the other half allotted to political parties on a proportional basis.  Voters cast two ballots at each election, one for their choice of person to represent their district (winner is first past the post), and the second for their preferred political party. The results of the second election determines how many extra seats each party is awarded to ensure that the total number of representatives in the Bundestag closely matches each party’s popularity with the voters nationwide.  The individuals selected to fill these extra party seats are determined by their position on the party list, which each party submits to the electoral authorities prior to the election.  The effect of this system is to strengthen party discipline while still making at least half the Bundestag directly accountable to a specific district.

The Judicial System

German courts operate independently of the political system.  As in France the judicial system operates on code law.  German courts have the power of judicial r

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