Election year – time to swat up on German politics

Before I became an expat I was well versed in politics. I read the broadsheets daily (usually at the top of a London bus on my way to work) and, when occasion called for it, I voiced a distinct opinion at dinner parties. So I find it embarrassing that after three years of living in Berlin, I remain relatively ignorant about contemporary German politics. I am well versed in the country’s history (19th and 20th centuries at least) but terribly vague about way the present state functions and current politic issues.

It could be that this is a typical expat experience. I know my American grandmother, who has lived in Britain for over 65 years, still prefers to read about American politics than that of our small fair isle. But now, in Berlin, the election is nearly upon us. The Euro crisis is bringing Germany’s role in Europe to centre stage. And everyone is talking about politics. It doesn’t look like we’ll be moving back to the UK anytime soon, so it is time, I think, to be able to join in.

In attempt to educate myself and to provide some useful information for other expats in Germany, in my next few posts, I shall attempt to tackle: (1) Germany’s political system; (2) the main German political parties and (3) Germany in the wider context of the EU. My musings will only fleetingly touch on the historic, and mostly be told from an expat perspective – that being what it feels important to me to know, rather than the nitty gritty of every last detail. And I hope these posts will not be quite as dry as they threaten to be. 

Germany is a social democracy and a Federal Republic (Bundesrepublik Deutschland). In short, this means it abides by democratic practices, has a functioning welfare state (pensions, unemployment money, legal aid, free health insurance for those who cannot afford to pay for their own), and is a federation (Bund) of 16 states (Laender). It has two elected political houses – the Bundestag (lower chamber) and the Bundesrat (upper chamber). The Bundestag is elected through direct elections held every four years, by proportional representation (not first-past-the-post as we have in Britain). Too complicated to explain here, the effects of proportional representation are that even relatively small parties can send members to parliament, proportionate to their overall share of the votes, and it is rare for any political party to form an outright majority – hence the coalitions of recent years. Parties do, however, generally have to achieve a 5% minimum of the popular vote to be represented in either a state or national parliament. There a very few exceptions to this rule – which again are something for another time. The Bundesrat represent the governments of the 16 states and are members of the state cabinets.

The president (elected by a federal convention, consisting of members of the Bundestag and delegates from each state) is the head of state, but his powers and responsibilities are representative and ceremonial rather than actual. The second highest official in Germany is the Bundestagspraesident who is elected by the Bundestag and is responsible for overseeing sessions of this chamber. Then comes the Chancellor (currently Angela Merkel – Germany’s first female Chancellor). The third highest office in the country, the Chancellor is appointed by the Bundespraesident after being elected by the Bundestag. It is the holder of this position who exercises executive power.

Germans elect representatives to their Land (state) as well as to the national parliament (Bundestag). Certain laws are decided at state level – for example with the provision of childcare for children under the age of three (though it has very recently been ruled that Germany-wide every child over the age of one has the right to a full-time nursery place). In practice, this meant that as an expat living in Berlin you would be able to find a place in a Kindergarten for your one-year-old, but your friend in Bavaria would have her child of the same age at home.

The Grundgesetz (basic law), drawn up in West Germany in 1949, forms the framework of the political state. In a country with such a difficult recent history, the importance of this Grundgesetz is immense. Though amended over the years, the Grundgesetz‘s fundamental principles of guaranteeing human dignity, the separation of powers, the federal structure, and the rule of law cannot be changed. Any amendments require a two-thirds majority in both chambers of parliament.

Now enough politics for a summer evening. I have planted the seeds of my German political knowledge, but my balcony flowers are being ravished by the heat of the Berlin sun, and I owe them some water.

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