An Overview of the Political System in Germany

An Overview of the Political System in Germany

Politics influence everything, so it is always good to be informed. But in order to know what you are talking about, you need to have the necessary information about the system you are living in. So let’s try to make a quick overview of the political system of the Federal Republic of Germany.

The Head of State

If you have your origin in the United States or France, you would think that the president is the most powerful person in the state – but not in Germany. In fact, the Federal Republic just has a president in a representative manner.

In Germany’s system of a parliamentary democracy, the federal chancellor is responsible for overseeing the government and managing daily political affairs, while the federal president primarily holds a ceremonial role. Through their actions and public presence, the federal president symbolizes the state, its legitimacy, and unity. It’s important to note that the majority of the federal president’s actions require approval through the countersignature of a German government member to become valid.

The reason for this fact is simple: Germany has had some dreadful experiences with one person having the power of the whole state. That’s why all of German politics aim at preventing to let one person gain too much influence.

Historical Background of the Federal Republic of Germany

Germany’s government structure and authority are rooted in its constitution, the Grundgesetz (Basic Law), which came into effect on May 23, 1949. This occurred after obtaining formal approval for the establishment of the Federal Republic (then West Germany) from the military governments of the Western occupying powers (France, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and the consent of the state parliaments to form the Bund (federation).

At that time, West Germany consisted of 11 states and West Berlin, granted the unique status of a state without voting rights. In anticipation of a future reunification with the eastern sector, the provisional capital was situated in the small university town of Bonn.

On October 7, 1949, the Soviet zone of occupation transformed into a separate, nominally sovereign country—formally known as the German Democratic Republic and popularly referred to as East Germany. The five federal states within the Soviet zone were abolished, and 15 administrative districts (Bezirke) were established, with the Soviet sector of Berlin becoming the capital.

West Germany’s path to full sovereignty was gradual; the Western powers initially retained many powers and prerogatives, only devolving them to the West German government as it achieved economic and political stability. Full sovereignty for West Germany was ultimately attained on May 5, 1955. East Germany considered its separation from the rest of Germany as definitive, while West Germany regarded its eastern neighbor as an illegally constituted state until the 1970s.

The concept of “two German states in one German nation” emerged during this period. Incremental improvements in relations between the two governments helped normalize various aspects, such as travel, transportation, and the status of West Berlin as an exclave of the Federal Republic. The dissolution of the communist bloc in the late 1980s paved the way for German unification.

Today, The Federal Chancellor and Federal government are responsible for control over issues such as managing migration, climate protection, cooperation in Europe, and championing peace and security. The constitution emphasizes the inviolability of human dignity, declaring it the duty of all state authority to respect and protect it, as well as other fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, arts, and sciences, equality before the law, and freedom of faith and conscience.

Bundestag and Bundesrat

Germany is therefore not only a federal but also a parliamentary republic. Parliaments belong to the legislative branch, while governments belong to the executive branch. Its highest court is the Federal Constitutional Court, which supervises compliance of legal practices with the Basic Law. That means that the parliament has the power, the so-called Bundestag (literally meaning “Federal diet”, not to mix up with the Reichstag: That’s just the name of the building).

The German Bundestag

The members of the Bundestag (all in all 630) are voting and passing the bills. But with Germany being also a federal republic, another chamber is part of the legislative system, the Bundesrat.

Since late 2021, Germany has been governed by a coalition of the SPD, Alliance 90/The Greens and the FDP, headed by Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The next Bundestag elections are scheduled for 2025.

Beteiligung Bundestagswahlen (Turnout for Bundestag elections)

The Bundesrat

The Federal Council, or Bundesrat, represents the federal states and serves as the second chamber of parliament alongside the Bundestag. It works alongside with the Federal Government, consisting of the Federal Chancellor and Federal Ministers.

The Bundesrat’s agreement is frequently essential in the legislative process, as federal legislation often requires implementation by state or local agencies. In cases of disagreement between the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, either party has the option to seek resolution through the Vermittlungsausschuss (Mediation Committee), a conference committee-style body composed of 16 members from both the Bundesrat and the Bundestag.

The Federal Constitutional Court

The Federal Constitutional Court is a special part of the judicial system that reviews judicial and administrative decisions and legislation to determine whether they are in accord with the constitution. Located in Karlsruhe, Baden-Württemberg, it draws inspiration from the extensive jurisdiction models of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Austrian Constitutional Court. With an annual caseload of around 5,000 cases, it handles a significantly larger volume than the U.S. Supreme Court, which hears several hundred cases annually.

A quick Overview of the Political System in Germany

© Pixabay

Germany’s States, or Länder

As we already said, the Federal Republic of Germany operates as a federal state, comprising sixteen states known as Länder (singular: Land). Among these, Berlin, Hamburg, and Bremen, along with its seaport exclave Bremerhaven, are designated as Stadtstaaten or “city-states,” while the remaining thirteen are referred to as Flächenländer or “area states.” Notably, Bavaria, Saxony, and Thuringia identify themselves as Freistaaten or “free states.”

Established in 1949 through the unification of the three western zones previously under American, British, and French administration after World War II, the initial states included Baden, Bavaria, Bremen, Hamburg, Hesse, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, Schleswig-Holstein, Württemberg-Baden, and Württemberg-Hohenzollern. West Berlin, despite being under Western Allies’ occupation, considered itself part of the Federal Republic.

In 1952, following a referendum, Baden, Württemberg-Baden, and Württemberg-Hohenzollern merged into Baden-Württemberg, and in 1957, the Saar Protectorate joined as the state of Saarland. The German constitution delineates exclusive federal responsibilities in areas like foreign affairs and defense, while others fall under shared authority, with states retaining legislative authority in various domains, including culture, education, and job training.

The Role of the Chancellor

The Chancellor (currently Olaf Scholz, after Angela Merkel was in office from 2005 to 2021), is also part of the Parliament and has, of course, a mandate. Thus executive and legislative are at a certain amount mixed, but that’s not a problem at all: The Bundeskanzler has to be elected by the members of parliament and not by the citizens.

The Bundestag controls the Bundeskanzler, although he or she sets the basic principles of the German policy in advance (the so-called Kanzlerdemokratie). The parliament can dismiss the chancellor in different ways – the konstruktives Misstrauensvotum (motion of no confidence) and the Vertrauensfrage (where the chancellor asks the parliament for loyalty). The first thing happened twice until now, the second one five times.

The chancellor is not only part of the parliament, but also head of the government (but not the head of state). Therefore, he/she is choosing different ministers for his/her government. Because Germany has a multi-party system, the chancellor needs to follow the result and the ratio of the election when naming the ministers.

Because of that, normally a coalition between two or more parties has to be made to form a functioning government. Otherwise, the government would not have the parliament’s majority to rule the country properly.

Separated from the executive and the legislative is of course also in Germany the judicative. There is a close link to the idea of federalism: Each Land has its courts, but the highest instance is the Bundesgerichtshof and therefore a court of the Bund (The Federal Republic).

One could write pages and pages more about the rather complicated system, but this overview should give you a first impression. If you want to learn more about Germany’s political system, just take a look at the page of the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (Federal office of political education).

Political Parties

Political parties and electoral processes are governed by the Basic Law, which assigns political parties the responsibility of contributing to the formation of the political will of the people. The current 20th German Bundestag, the national parliament elected on September 26, 2021, is composed of three political groups: the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), Alliance 90/The Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen), and the Free Democratic Party (FDP).

Together, these three parties constitute the government. The opposition comprises the Union parties CDU (Christian Democratic Union of Germany) and CSU (Christian Social Union in Bavaria), Alternative for Germany (AfD), and The Left (Die Linke).

Christian Democratic Union (CDU)/Christian Social Union (CSU): The CDU, founded in 1950, emerged as a unifying force for Germany’s Christian conservative voters in the post-World War II era. The party played a pivotal role in Germany’s postwar stability, notably under Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and later Helmut Kohl, who oversaw German reunification in 1990.

Chancellor Angela Merkel (2005-2021) positioned the CDU towards the center-left. The CDU/CSU emphasizes reducing corporate taxes and benefiting high-income earners. Olaf Scholz became the new chancellor on 8 December 2021. His Social Democrats formed a liberal-left coalition government with The Greens and the FDP

On migration, they uphold the right to asylum but advocate for tighter restrictions and the deportation of refugees involved in criminal offenses. This party envisions Germany as a leading player in world affairs, emphasizing traditional partnerships with Europe and the United States.

Social Democratic Party (SPD): Founded in 1875, the SPD is Germany’s oldest political party and traditionally represents the working classes and trade unions. Notable figures like Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt have left a lasting impact on German politics.

The SPD’s core issues include social policy, such as a minimum wage, and progressive taxation, aiming to tax the rich while easing the burden on low and medium-earners. The SPD faced internal division over the Agenda 2010 labor market reforms, which introduced welfare cuts known as Hartz IV. The party spent years in a coalition with CDU Chancellor Angela Merkel before leading a coalition with the Greens and the FDP in 2021.

Green Party: The Greens, established as an environmentalist party, draw support from well-educated, urban demographics, particularly in major cities in western Germany. Over the years, they have gained more affluent voters, with recent support from young voters concerned about climate change. The party has been divided between “realists” willing to compromise for government influence and “fundamentalists” with more left-wing perspectives. The realists, exemplified by Winfried Kretschmann, have gained prominence, leading coalitions with the conservative CDU. Annalena Baerbock, the party’s candidate for chancellor in 2021, became Foreign Minister, while Robert Habeck serves as Vice-Chancellor.

Free Democratic Party (FDP): Founded in 1948, the FDP is a neo-liberal, pro-free market party that traditionally garners support from the self-employed, including business owners and professionals. While historically influential, the party faced setbacks in 2013 before experiencing a resurgence under Christian Lindner.

With a focus on individual freedom, civil rights, and tax cuts, the FDP advocates for combating climate change through new technologies. They oppose expropriations, rent control, and rent caps, favoring an increase in owner-occupied homes. The FDP promotes privatization, rejects a speed limit on the autobahn, and believes in technology’s capacity to mitigate climate change’s adverse effects.

Bundestag elections and federal state parliaments adhere to principles of freedom, confidentiality, and equality, where each vote carries the same weight. These elections are conducted directly, allowing individuals to vote directly for parliamentary members through a list. In Germany, these elections are considered general elections, making all citizens aged 18 and above eligible to vote and stand for election. If you want to know more about the German voting system, check out this article.

Germany and its International Relations

Germany maintains amicable relationships with numerous countries through alliances, partnerships, and organizational memberships, collaborating to advance peace, democracy, and human rights. As a member of the European Union (EU), Germany and all other EU citizens benefit from advantageous rights, such as the freedom of movement, encompassing travel, residency, shopping, study, and work within the European Union.

In addition to the EU, Germany holds membership in the United Nations, NATO, and the groups of permanent representatives of the G7 and G20. These extensive collaborations are complemented by numerous bilateral partnerships and trade agreements.

As of 2022, Germany holds a position within the top 25 most peaceful countries, ranking 16th out of 163 countries and regions in the prestigious “Global Peace Index.” Iceland claims the title of the world’s safest country, with New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland following closely. The index assesses a country’s peacefulness based on factors such as government stability and corruption rates.

Want to know more about politics in Germany? Check out our series.


Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about the German politics and federal structure.

What is the political culture of Germany?

Germany’s political culture is characterized by a commitment to democracy, rule of law, and a strong emphasis on social welfare. It values consensus-building, political participation, and a robust civil society.

Is Germany a democratic or monarchy?

Germany is a federal democracy. It operates under a federal parliamentary republic, governed by the principles of representative democracy and a constitutional framework outlined in the Basic Law.

What type of government is Germany right now?

Germany is a federal parliamentary republic. It has a multi-party system, and the federal chancellor, along with the federal ministers, leads the executive branch. The Bundestag (federal parliament) and the Bundesrat (representing the states) are the legislative bodies.

What is the role of the federal president in Germany?

The federal president in Germany holds a mostly ceremonial role. They represent the state, its legitimacy, and unity through actions and public appearances.

Why does Germany have a federal government?

Germany adopted a federal structure to balance power between the national government and individual states (Länder). This decentralized approach aims to ensure regional representation, local governance, and responsiveness to diverse needs while maintaining a unified national identity.

Summing Up: A Quick Overview of the German Political System

This overview explored the structure of the German parliamentary democracy and the key role of institutions like the Bundestag, the Federal Court, and the Bundesrat. It sheds light on the complex interplay between federal laws, provincial governments, political parties, and the significance of coalitions in governance.

The emphasis on human rights in the constitution and Germany’s international partnerships further enrich the understanding of its political and diplomatic standing. If you’d like to know more about German culture, come join us on our SmarterGerman blog!