PSA Parliaments member, Julia Schwanholz of University of Goettingen, provides an overview of the German Bundestag as part of our Parliament Overviews series.
From 1949 to 1989, Germany was divided into the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, orig. Bundesrepublik Deutschland, BRD) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR, orig. Deutsche Demokratische Republik, DDR). After the Cold War period, German reunification occurred in 1990. In the same year, the national election for the first all-German Bundestag achieved the integration of the GDR into the FRG, and Berlin became the capital. A few years later, the Bundestag moved from Bonn to Berlin (1999).
The political system of Germany can be described as a strong representative democracy. By constitutional law, on the federal level there are only very few direct democratic capabilities (e.g. federal territory reorganisation, Art. 29 of the Basic Law (GG)). Germany has a federal government and sixteen Länder (federal states) governments. The bicameral federal parliament consists of Bundestag and Bundesrat. As most laws are passed by the Bundestag, and the members of the Bundesrat are appointed by the Länder and not elected directly, from time to time critical voices have expressed their concern about joint decision trap and a democratic deficit. Because actors from different political parties negotiate political issues to achieve the best policy outcomes (cooperative federalism). The Basic Law clearly regulates the competencies of the two different regional levels, and from the 1960s onwards, the federal government and the Länder governments have become increasingly cooperative. Finally, to overcome the problem of joint decision trap, the autonomy of the Länder was strengthened by a federal reform in 2006, when the powers on the different levels were reorganized in various policy fields.
With its strong corporatism, the German Model of interest group intermediation is a role model for successful problem-solving strategies in testing times. It is the specific concerted exchange of political ideas among actors from different angles – namely politics, economy, and society – which ensures a balance of interests.
Constitutional Institutions and Structure of Parliament
Germany is a parliamentary democracy with five constitutional institutions. The federal chancellor (1) is elected by the Bundestag (2) with its currently 630 members (status of 2017). The chancellor has policy-making power and appoints the federal ministers, who have distinct areas of responsibility. The dual leadership of the executive is completed by the federal president (3) who performs mostly representative functions. The upper house of the German parliament, the Bundesrat (4), is a non-directly-elected federal assembly representing the interests of the governments of the Länder and has 69 members. Finally, the federal constitutional court (5) with two chambers and eight judges each ensures the separation of powers.
Although all constitutional institutions work well in Germany, the relationship between legislative and executive organs is interlocked; this fact is called new dualism, or even monism. In practice, this means that the government depends on the confidence of parliament. German constitutional law offers two ways of challenging the relationship between the government and its parliamentary majority. first, the chancellor herself / himself can ask the Bundestag for a vote of confidence (Art. 68 GG). Second, the Bundestag can replace the chancellor and vote for an alternative candidate by a constructive vote of no confidence (Art. 67 GG).
There have been five incidences of the vote of confidence: in two cases, the chancellor’s request for a vote of confidence was successful (Schmidt 1982, Schröder 2001), while it failed the other three times (Brandt 1972, Kohl 1982, Schröder 2005). There have been two examples of constructive votes of no confidence: in 1972 the majority of the Bundestag did not vote for Rainer Barzel to unseat the federal chancellor, Willy Brandt; consequently, Brandt remained in office. The opposite happened to Helmut Schmidt in 1982, when the majority of the Bundestag voted constructively for Helmut Kohl who, as a result, became the new federal chancellor.
The Bundestag is the only constitutional organ on the federal state level that is elected directly by the people.
Electoral System and Size
The quadrennial elections to the Bundestag follow the principle of personalized proportional representation. By constitutional law, the ballots have to be direct, free, equal, and secret. Each eligible voter has two votes (a first vote and a second party list vote). Each vote has a particular meaning: those candidates with the most first votes of their constituencies are elected directly into parliament. First votes, therefore, personalize the election. Second votes determine the number of seats in parliament for the respective parties. Thus, the second vote mirrors voters’ personal decisions for one particular political party (proportional representation). All political parties receiving a minimum of five per cent of the second votes (five per cent threshold) or even a minimum of three directly elected candidates (by first votes) enter the Bundestag. Individual candidates of parties with less than three directly elected candidates can enter parliament, without the party being proportionally represented due to their second votes. The five per cent threshold is supposed to prevent party fragmentation. The formation of coalitions is promoted by the system of proportional representation.
The concept of overhang seats is an exception from ordinary proceedings. Such seats occur when a political party wins more direct mandates by first vote results than seats from second votes. In this case, all its directly elected candidates enter parliament, increasing the total number of seats. Due to this concept, the total number of MPs holding a mandate in the Bundestag – by constitutional law there are 598 seats – differs from one federal election to the next (with 630 MPs in 2017). Over the years, the counting procedure for party list votes has been adjusted several times. Without going into too much detail, the most recent voting reform of 2013 was passed to stop allocational injustice by preventing too many overhang seats. 598 seats are to be allocated among the parties by the complex counting procedure of Sainte-Lague. To be considered, parties have gain more than five per cent of all second votes.
Finally, it has to be mentioned that in the German system it is not an option to abstain from voting; it is only possible by returning a blank or spoilt ballot paper, which automatically leads to rejected votes.
Main Powers and Procedures
The literature emphasises two characteristic strengths of the German parliament: first, the political parties are of significant importance in parliament. Second, the Bundestag is characterized as a rather transformative parliament with a strong emphasis on its committee work.
Law-making follows clear procedural rulings: before a draft bill can be deliberated in the first chamber, the second chamber, the Bundesrat, has to be informed. During a period of six weeks the Bundesrat can give critical feedback or request any changes to the proposal.
Law-making in the Bundestag consists of three plenary stages: a first, a second, and a third reading. After the first reading and the opportunity for the political parties to debate the draft bill publicly in parliament, the draft bill has to be referred to the committee in charge, which is always the one that mirrors the area of responsibility of the federal ministry which drafted the bill (if, for example, the ministry of finance writes a proposal, it is the finance committee that is responsible for it in parliament). In addition, a number of other committees are asked to assist the responsible committee during the committee stage. In Germany, committees have a strong impact on law-making. They have the power to deliberate draft bills in detail and are free to change their wording as well as their content, with their only constraint being party-political majority. Committees generally meet behind closed doors. Only hearings with experts and members of interest groups or trade unions are held publicly.
In contrast, all plenary debates take place in public. After the committee stage, all parties convene again for the second reading in a plenary session. Often, second and third readings follow in quick succession. Only after these three readings can the final vote on the bill take place in parliament.
There are two types of bill in the German federal system: those requiring approval and those that do not. Whether it is the first or the latter type of law depends on the content of the bill. If the Länder are responsible for implementing the law, the Bundesrat has to approve the bill. Conversely, whenever a federal law is to be passed, the second chamber only possesses veto power. This system of alternation in debate and work stages in the Bundestag characterizes the German parliament as a working parliament with a strong focus on debates.
The German legislative assemblies today are faced with some newly emerging issues: the digital transformation challenges the concept of representative democracy. In addition to traditional fora – such as membership in political parties and regular participation in the elections – more and more citizens demand to be closer to those who discuss political issues behind closed doors. Political participation today takes place digitally in social networks. Consequently, political will-formation and decision-making happens under permanent (social) media observation. Now it is not only professional journalists that keep a critical eye on the performance of politicians, but also a large group of Internet bloggers, digital interest groups and ordinary citizens as part of a digital community. Parliament needs to deal with these developments. In connection with EU-related and global events (e.g. Brexit, the refugee crisis, and the referendum in Turkey), a reconsideration of the essence of representative democracy is long overdue and one of the most pressing tasks for the German parliament today.
Beyme, Klaus von (1997): Der Gesetzgeber. Der Bundestag als Entscheidungszentrum, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag.
Ismayr, Wolfgang; Holtmann, Everhard; Görtemaker, Manfred; Mayntz, Gregor; Wilderotter, Hans (2016): The German Parliament. Konstanz: Uvk Verlags GmbH.
Ismayr, Wolfgang (2013): Der Deutsche Bundestag. Bonn: bpb.
Schüttemeyer, Suzanne S. (1998): Fraktionen im Deutschen Bundestag 1949-1997 – Empirische Befunde und theoretische Folgerungen. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag