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Germany is a federal parliamentary republic, and federal legislative power is vested in the Bundestag (the parliament of Germany) and the Bundesrat (the representative body of the Länder, Germany's regional states). There is a multi-party system that, since 1949, has been dominated by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). The judiciary of Germany is independent of the executive and the legislature. The 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 divides powers both between the federal and state levels and between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
After 17 years of the Christian - Liberal coalition, led by Helmut Kohl, the Social Democrats together with the Greens won the elections of 1998. SPD vice chairman Gerhard Schröder positioned himself as a centrist candidate, in contradiction to the leftist SPD chairman Oskar Lafontaine. The Kohl government was hurt at the polls by slower economic growth in the east in the previous two years, and constantly high unemployment. The final margin of victory was sufficiently high to permit a "red-green" coalition of the SPD with Alliance '90/The Greens (Bündnis '90/Die Grünen), bringing the Greens into a national government for the first time.
Initial problems of the new government, marked by policy disputes between the moderate and traditional left wings of the SPD, resulted in some voter disaffection. Lafontaine left the government (and later his party) in early 1999. The CDU won in some important state elections but was hit in 2000 by a party donation scandal from the Kohl years. As a result of this CDU crisis, Angela Merkel became chair.
The next election for the Bundestag was 22 September 2002. Gerhard Schröder led the coalition of SPD and Greens to an eleven-seat victory over the Christian Democrat challengers headed by Edmund Stoiber (CSU). Three factors are generally cited that enabled Schröder to win the elections despite poor approval ratings a few months before and a weaker economy: good handling of the 100-year flood, firm opposition to the USA's 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Stoiber's unpopularity in the east, which cost the CDU crucial seats there.
In its second term, the red green coalition lost several very important state elections, for example in Lower Saxony where Schröder was the prime minister from 1990 to 1998. In 20 April 2003, chancellor Schröder announced massive labor market reforms, called Agenda 2010, that cut in unemployment benefits. Although these reforms have sparked massive protests they are now credited with being in part responsible for the relatively strong economic performance of Germany during the Euro-Crisis and the decrease in unemployment in Germany in the years 2006/7.
On 22 May 2005 the SPD received a devastating defeat in its former heartland, North Rhine-Westphalia. Half an hour after the election results, the SPD chairman Franz Müntefering announced that the chancellor would clear the way for new federal elections.
This took the republic by surprise, especially because the SPD was below 25% in polls at the time. The CDU quickly announced Angela Merkel as Christian Democrat candidate for chancellor, aspiring to be the first female chancellor in German history.
New for the 2005 election was the alliance between the newly formed Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice (WASG) and the PDS, planning to fuse into a common party (see Left Party.PDS). With the former SPD chairman, Oskar Lafontaine for the WASG and Gregor Gysi for the PDS as prominent figures, this alliance soon found interest in the media and in the population. Polls in July saw them as high as 12%.
Whereas in May and June 2005 victory of the Christian Democrats seemed highly likely, with some polls giving them an absolute majority, this picture changed shortly before the election at 18 September 2005.
The election results of 18 September were surprising insofar as they differed widely from the polls of the previous weeks. The Christian Democrats lost votes compared to 2002, reaching only 35.2%, and failed to get a majority for a "black-yellow" government of CDU/CSU and liberal FDP. But the red-green coalition also failed to get a majority, with the SPD losing votes, but polling 34.2% and the greens staying at 8.1%. The left party alliance reached 8.7% and entered the German Parliament, whereas the NPD only got 1.6%.
The most likely outcome of coalition talks was a so-called "grand coalition" between the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD). Three party coalitions and Coalitions involving the Left Party have been ruled out by all concerning parties (including the Left Party itself). On 22 November 2005, Angela Merkel was sworn in by president Horst Köhler for the office of Bundeskanzlerin.
The existence of the grand coalition on federal level helped smaller parties' electoral prospects in state elections. Since in 2008, the CSU lost its absolute majority in Bavaria and formed a coalition with the FDP, the grand coalition had no majority in the Bundesrat and depended on FDP votes on important issues. In November 2008, the SPD re-elected Franz Müntefering as its chairman and made Frank-Walter Steinmeier its leading candidate for the federal election in September 2009.
As a result of that federal election, the grand coalition came to an end. The SPD suffered the heaviest losses in its history and was unable to form a coalition government. The CDU/CSU was rather stable. The three smaller parties thus have more seats in the German Bundestag than ever before, with the liberal party FDP winning 14.6% of votes.
The CDU/CSU and FDP together hold 332 seats (of 622 total seats) and have been in coalition since 27 October 2009. Angela Merkel was re-elected as chancellor, and Guido Westerwelle served as the Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor of Germany. After being elected into the Federal Government, the FDP suffered from heavy losses in the following state elections. The FDP had promised to lower taxes in the electoral campaign but after being part of the coalition they had to admit that this was not possible regarding the economic crisis. Because of the losses Guido Westerwelle had to resign as chair of the FDP in favor of Philipp Rösler, Federal Minister of Health, who was consequently appointed as vice chancellor. Shortly after, Philipp Rösler changed office and became Federal Minister of Economics and Technology.
The Social Democrats are since the electoral defeat led by the new party chairman Sigmar Gabriel, a former federal minister and state prime minister, and by Frank-Walter Steinmeier as the head of the parliamentary group. The Greens and the Left Party both suffer from some internal frictions. It is difficult to tell what the SPD defeat in the federal politics means for the state elections, as both big parties did well in some but not in others. Since 2011 the Greens have their first prime minister, the one of Baden-Württemberg, in a Green-SPD-government.
Germany has seen increased political activity by citizens outside the established political parties with respect to local and environmental issues such as the location of Stuttgart 21 a railway hub and construction of Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport.
The Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany is the constitution of Germany. It was formally approved on 8 May 1949, and, with the signature of the Allies of World War II on 12 May, came into effect on 23 May, as the constitution of those states of West Germany that were initially included within the Federal Republic. The 1949 Basic Law is a response to the perceived flaws of the 1919 Weimar Constitution, which failed to prevent the rise of the Nazi party in 1933.
The duties of the Bundespräsident (Federal President) are largely representative and ceremonial. He is not a member of the government. The President is elected every five years by the Federal Assembly (Bundesversammlung), a special body convened only for this purpose, comprising the entire Bundestag and an equal number of state delegates selected especially for this purpose in proportion to election results for the state diets. Most Presidents have been members of the CDU as this party is usually the strongest in the Bundestag and also often in the states.
The President has a rather ceremonial role in creating a new Chancellor and a theoretically more significant role in dissolving the Bundestag. The constitution provides some cases where the President could exert more power, but this has never occurred.
The Bundeskanzler (Federal Chancellor) heads the Bundesregierung (Federal Government) and thus the executive branch of the federal government. He or she is elected by and responsible to the Bundestag, Germany's parliament. The other members of the government are the Federal Ministers; they are chosen by the Chancellor. Germany, like the United Kingdom, can thus be classified as a parliamentary system.
The Chancellor cannot be removed from office during a four 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 in the periods 1969–72 and 1976–82, when the Social Democratic party of Chancellor Brandt and Schmidt came in second in the elections, the Chancellor has always been the candidate of the largest party, usually supported by a coalition of two parties with a majority in the parliament. One of the ministers the Chancellor appoints is the Vice-Chancellor (Vizekanzler). This office itself is hardly important but often indicates who is the main cabinet member of the smaller coalition partner.
The Cabinet of Germany (Bundeskabinett or Bundesregierung) is the chief executive body of the Federal Republic of Germany. It consists of the Chancellor and the cabinet ministers. The fundamentals of the cabinet's organization are set down in articles 62 to 69 of the Basic Law.
Federal legislative power is divided between the Bundestag and the Bundesrat. The Bundestag is directly elected by the German people, whilst the Bundesrat represents the regional states (Länder). The federal legislature has powers of exclusive jurisdiction and concurrent jurisdiction with the states in areas specifically enumerated by the constitution.
The Bundestag is more powerful than the Bundesrat and only needs the latter's consent for proposed legislation related to revenue shared by the federal and state governments, and the imposition of responsibilities on the states. In practice, this means that the agreement of the Bundesrat in the legislative process is very often required, as federal legislation often has to be executed by state or local agencies. In the event of disagreement between the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, a conciliation committee is formed to find a compromise.
The Bundestag (Federal Diet) is elected for a four year term and consists of 598 or more members elected by a means of mixed member proportional representation, which Germans call "personalised proportional representation." 299 members represent single-seat constituencies and are elected by a First Past the Post electoral system. Parties that obtain fewer constituency seats than their national share of the vote are allotted seats from party lists to make up the difference. In contrast, parties that obtain more constituency seats than their national share of the vote are allowed to keep these so-called overhang seats. In the current parliament (elected in 2009) there are 24 overhang seats, giving the Bundestag a total of 622 members.
A party must receive either five percent of the national vote or win at least three directly elected seats to be eligible for non-constituency seats in the Bundestag. This rule, often called the "five percent hurdle", was incorporated into Germany's election law to prevent political fragmentation and strong minor parties. The first Bundestag elections were held in the Federal Republic of Germany ("West Germany") on 14 August 1949. Following reunification, elections for the first all-German Bundestag were held on 2 December 1990. The last election was held on 27. September 2009, the 17th Bundestag convened on 27. October 2009. The number of Bundestag Deputies was reduced from 656 to 598 beginning in 2002, although under the additional member system, more deputies may be admitted if a party wins more directly elected seats than it would be entitled to under proportional representation.
The judicial system comprises three types of courts.
The main difference between the Federal Constitutional Court and the Federal Court of Justice is that the Federal Constitutional Court may only be called if a constitutional matter within a case is in question (e.g. a possible violation of human rights in a criminal trial), while the Federal Court of Justice may be called in any case.
Germany maintains a network of 229 diplomatic missions abroad and holds relations with more than 190 countries. It is the largest contributor to the budget of the European Union (providing 27%) and third largest contributor to the United Nations (providing 8%). Germany is a member of the NATO defence alliance, the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the G8, the G20, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Germany has played a leading role in the European Union since its inception and has maintained a strong alliance with France since the end of World War II. The alliance was especially close in the late 1980s and early 1990s under the leadership of Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl and Socialist François Mitterrand. Germany is at the forefront of European states seeking to advance the creation of a more unified European political, defence, and security apparatus. For a number of decades after WWII, the Federal Republic of Germany kept a notably low profile in international relations, because of both its recent history and its occupation by foreign powers.
During the Cold War, Germany's partition by the Iron Curtain made it a symbol of East-West tensions and a political battleground in Europe. However, Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik was a key factor in the détente of the 1970s. In 1999, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's government defined a new basis for German foreign policy by taking a full part in the decisions surrounding the NATO war against Yugoslavia and by sending German troops into combat for the first time since World War II.
The governments of Germany and the United States are close political allies. The 1948 Marshall Plan and strong cultural ties have crafted a strong bond between the two countries, although Schröder's very vocal opposition to the Iraq War suggested the end of Atlanticism and a relative cooling of German-American relations. The two countries are also economically interdependent: 8.8% of German exports are U.S.-bound and 6.6% of German imports originate from the U.S. Other signs of the close ties include the continuing position of German-Americans as the largest ethnic group in the U.S. and the status of Ramstein Air Base (near Kaiserslautern) as the largest U.S. military community outside the U.S.
The development policy of the Federal Republic of Germany is an independent area of German foreign policy. It is formulated by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and carried out by the implementing organisations. The German government sees development policy as a joint responsibility of the international community. It is the world's third biggest aid donor after the United States and France. Germany spent 0.37 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on development, which is below the government's target of increasing aid to 0.51 per cent of GDP by 2010. The international target of 0.7% of GNP would have not been reached either.
Germany comprises sixteen states that are collectively referred to as Länder. Due to differences in size and population the subdivision of these states varies, especially between city states (Stadtstaaten) and states with larger territories (Flächenländer). For regional administrative purposes five states, namely Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia and Saxony, consist of a total of 22 Government Districts (Regierungsbezirke). As of 2009 Germany is divided into 403 districts (Kreise) on municipal level, these consist of 301 rural districts and 102 urban districts.