This is Germany, it’s a country in Central Europe that’s about the size of the US state of Montana or slightly smaller than Japan. If you’re still having any trouble finding it, it’s right next to Słubice, Poland. Germany’s federal government meets in the capital and largest city of Berlin, so aside from tourists taking selfies at Checkpoint Charlie and people ordering döner kebabs, what exactly goes on here in Berlin?
So yeah, this is Germany, also known as the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland), Germany’s government is best described as a federal, parliamentary, representative democratic republic.
For those of you who aren’t fluent in political-scientist-ese, those terms mean that Germany’s government is a federation of different states under a non-monarchical government, which has different people as the head of state and head of government (I’ll explain the difference with that later), and that there’s a layer of politicians between the voters and the legislation.
Germany is also divided into 16 states, whose German names in alphabetical order of their English names are Baden-Württemberg, Bayern (Bavaria), Berlin, Brandenburg, Bremen, Hamburg, Hessen (Hesse), Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania), Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony), Nordrhein-Westfalen (North Rhine-Westphalia), Rheinland-Pfalz (Rhineland-Palatinate), Saarland, Sachsen (Saxony), Sachsen-Anhalt (Saxony-Anhalt), Schleswig-Holstein, and Thüringen (Thuringia).
Some of these states might have familiar names from European history (be it from various treaties or dogs) as many of them stem from the kingdoms that once ruled these lands, although now these states manage local affairs that the federal government can’t (and probably shouldn’t) be bothered with.
These include things like schools, law enforcement, healthcare, und so weiter. States are often further divided into Regierungsbezirke (governmental districts) and Kreise (districts) of various types, all responsible for various tasks even more local than what the state can provide for.
Now, this is a video about how the German national government works, so if you’re more interested in how local government works in Germany, I would highly recommend this video from Rewboss. Okay, back to the federal government, just how does that work? Well first, there are two major legislative bodies, the Bundestag and the Bundesrat.
The Bundestag meets in the famous Reichstag building and is the German parliament, while the Bundesrat meets in the Preußisches Herrenhaus (Prussian House of Lords) and represents the state governments. If you already know a bit about the US government, think of the Bundestag like the House of Representatives, and the Bundesrat as more like the Senate.
The German government also essentially has two leaders, the President and the Chancellor. The President is the head of state, which means he (currently Frank-Walter Steinmeier) presides over representational matters and doesn’t have as many powers despite technically being the most important person in the German government, they really just preside over legislation and make sure nothing goes wrong.
The second most is the President of the Bundestag (Bundestagspräsident, currently Wolfgang Schäuble) who is basically in charge of managing the Bundestag and making sure everything is in order, and is basically the German equivalent of a speaker.
The Chancellor however (Bundeskanzlerin, currently the world-famous Angela Merkel) is the head of government, which means she appoints the federal cabinet and basically runs the country. Technically the Chancellor is officially only ranked third in the German government, but there’s a reason you’ve heard of Angela Merkel.
Okay now for elections, which are a little more complicated. Not really to vote in, but more if you’re the person organizing the new government. Every five years a federal election is run, and it is during this time that voters vote for new representatives in the Bundestag (obviously they also kind of, technically vote for the Bundesrat, but just we’re going to focus on the Bundestag for now because it’s easier and more important).
The ballot they are sent essentially comes in two parts, one for the person the voter wants representing their constituency, and another for which party the voter wants in power. You don’t have to vote correspondingly either, if you’re a fan of the SPD but like the FDP candidate more, you can vote both ways.
This means that you’re essentially electing two halves of the 598 seats, 299 of which go to local candidates, with the other 299 going to party representatives so that a political party can get a more proportional amount of seats for their votes, although this does mean that the Bundestag may or may not go over the seat number of 598, and so additional overhang seats are often also given to balance this out.
Overhang seats, and their cousins levelling seats, however are an oh-so complicated situation that’s probably best left for another time. Just know that they’re additional seats given depending on how the vote goes for a particular party.
There are more than two main political parties in Germany, in fact there are currently six parties with seats in the Bundestag, which in decreasing order of said seats are the CDU/CSU (technically two parties in a kind of union), the SPD, AfD, FDP, the Left, and the Greens. These aren’t exactly fringe parties either, especially since a party needs at least 5% of the popular vote to get a seat in government.
This means that a singular party rarely gets a majority in government, and so they often need to pair up with another party to get legislation passed. This is something called a coalition, and the current government coalition is made up of the CDU/CSU and the SPD, with the other four parties forming what is known as the opposition, although there’s of course a lot of drama going on with this, so we shouldn’t go too deep into this right now as this will almost certainly change fast enough to make this video outdated in a few months.
So to wrap it all up, here’s a diagram of the German government. It is a little bit confusing at first, but so are most government diagrams to the unfamiliar observer. Okay, so let’s start with the normal German voter, who is a German citizen over the age of 18 who has lived at least 3 straight months in Germany in the last 25 years up to the election (which only applies if you’ve been living outside of Germany). So in this diagram, yellow boxes represent the legislative branch, blue boxes the executive branch, and gray boxes the judicial branch.
Green arrows mean that one body elects and/or appoints another, blue arrows that one body sends members to another, red arrows that one formally appoints and/or has veto power over another, and Three Arrows is a German YouTube channel that’s completely unrelated to this. So starting with the normal voter, they elect their state legislature and the federal diet. The state legislature in turn appoints the state constitutional court, the Minister-President, and the appointed members of the Federal Convention.
The Minister-President appoints the State Cabinet, and those two send members to the Federal Council, which works with the Federal Diet to appoint the Federal Constitutional Court and enact legislation. The Federal Diet meanwhile also sends members to the Federal Convention, which elects the President.
The President has veto power over the same legislation we just breezed over, but also formally appoints the Chancellor (who the Federal Diet also elects) and the President has veto power over the Federal Cabinet that the Chancellor then appoints. See, that wasn’t too bad, was it? The German government is a big and powerful player on the world stage. Germany may be the size of Montana and have a population smaller than Vietnam, but Germany also has the fourth largest economy in the world, which in turn makes it arguably one of the “leaders” of the European Union as a whole… so it’s kind of important they get this whole thing right! For more information please refer this website.
Hope you understood how the German political system works and how it is different from the rest of the world. Do let us know in the comments if you found this article helpful.