"The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom."
—Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Four years after World War II, delegates from West German counties worked out the Grundgesetz ("Basic Law") as a temporary constitution for West Germany, which was quickly adopted by all these states. After reunification, Germans liked it so much they made only minor revisions.
Germany is a federal parliamentary democratic republic. It has 16 states, known as Bundesländer. These are described in The Sixteen Lands of Deutschland.
All states have their own elected unicameral parliaments, which elects the head of government, who then forms the government.
Most state parliaments are called Landtag (State Diet), and their government consists of ministers headed by a Minister-President. The exceptions to this rule are the three "city-states" Hamburg, Bremen and Berlin. There, the government is called Senat, its members Senatoren, and its head Bürgermeister (Mayor) in one form or another. In Hamburg and Bremen, the parliament is called Bürgerschaft (Citizenry), while in Berlin it's called Abgeordnetenhaus (House of Representatives).
The German Länder can be compared to US states, with their own electoral politics in them. As they are by and large the legal descendants of sovereign states, they can also act on their own internationally in some cases.
Federal GovernmentGermany's President, elected via a special convention, is mostly a ceremonial figure and usually can safely be ignored.
His only real power is to decide whether or not to dissolve the Bundestag if it cannot agree on a Chancellor after an election or after the sitting Chancellor declared a "vote of confidence" and then lost it. Germany's Presidents used this power in 1972, 1983 and 2005, but each time with the support of the sitting Chancellor, who wanted an early election to clarify which side had the support of the people.
He also has the minor power to veto any law.
The main political power lies in the hands of the Bundeskanzler ("Federal Chancellor").
The German legislature, consists of:
The Bundestag ("Federal Diet"), the lower, more-powerful, directly elected chamber. Members serve four year terms, unless it's dissolved first (which does happen).
The Bundesrat ("Federal Council", nothing to do with Rodents of Unusual Size, Rodents Of Normal Size, or Rodents Of Any Size Whatsoever), the upper chamber, appointed by the state cabinets and usually composed of senior members of the same (the theory goes that states are represented in the Bundesrat in the way that countries are represented in the United Nations—the same theory, as it happens, that informed the United States Senate before it started to be directly-elected in 1914). Weaker than the former, but still is required to pass at least 60% of laws.
Germany uses Proportional Representation (PR) for its parliaments on all levels, meaning that coalitions are the rule of the day. It also means the strongest party may become the main opposition if a coalition of other parties reach a majority in parliament.
There are two notable exceptions to PR, the Five Percent Threshold and Overhang Seats. Both are under increased scrutiny by the Constitutional Court (BVG in German).
Five Percent Threshold: to reach full representation under PR, a party has to get 5% of the vote, or win a number of constituencies (1 on state level, 3 on federal). Otherwise they get only seats for won constituencies. The BVG basically only tolerates the 5% threshold on state and federal level, hoping it provides for stable governments, but struck it down for local and in 2011 for EU Parliament elections. If it had declared the 5% threshold void for the EP elections in 2009, small parties would have got 8 of Germany's 99 seats.
Overhang Seats: these happen in a mixed-member proportional system (see below) if a party gets more seats from constituencies than it would receive overall. This happens more often in recent years. Current law is that these constituency winners keep their seat, so their party gets stronger than under PR. In Schleswig-Holstein, this changed the winner, so the state had to change their law and call early elections. The federal election law also had to be changed, but the recently changed law still doesn't solve the problem, so the BVG may decide to rewrite the election law for the 2013 federal election (it avoided this last time, and would only make the minimal changes it regards necessary if it would rewrite).
Most states and the federal level use a mixed-member proportional system:
First, the overall result is decided by Proportional Representation.
Then for each party the seats are first filled with its first-past-the-post winners of single-member constituencies. This fills about half the seats.
The remaining seats for a party are filled from a pre-sorted party list, from the first person on the list on down. Most politicians run in a constituency as well as on their party list.
In local elections, constituencies don't exist, but the lists are open, so that the numbers of votes for the candidates determine who on the list gets elected.
In Bremen and Hamburg, citizen initiatives forced a change to open lists in state elections. More initiatives are planned in other states.
Bavaria came up with open lists on their own, while Baden-Württemberg uses a system without lists, with the remaining seats for a party being filled by those candidates who lost in their constituencies, but did better than the party's candidates in other constituencies.
German Political Parties
Germany has five major political parties in the Bundestag, with their own traditional colours, and their most important politicians (Federal Chancellors and Federal Presidents are only named here):
CDU/CSU (Black, CSU also Blue-White for Bavaria): actually two parties, known generally as "The Union", with the Christian Democratic Union existing in all states except Bavaria, and the Christian Social Union only in Bavaria, Germany's second largest state. Both are big-tent center-right parties, with the CSU being more socially conservative. Especially the CDU favors more integration of The European Union, but is unwilling to help much without others agreeing to such integration.
Five Federal Chancellors: Konrad Adenauer 1949-63, Ludwig Erhard 1963-66, Kurt Georg Kiesinger 1966-69, Helmut Kohl 1982-98 and Angela Merkel since 2005 (all CDU)
Six Federal Presidents: Heinrich Lübke 1959-69, Karl Carstens 1979-84, Richard von Weizsäcker 1984-94, Roman Herzog 1994-99, Horst Köhler 2004-2010 and Christian Wulff 2010-12 (all CDU)
Franz Josef Strauß (CSU): had a long career both on federal level and in Bavaria, where he was a long-time Minister-President. The CDU/CSU nominated him in 1980 as candidate for Chancellor, but the CDU/CSU didn't reach the necessary majority.
Edmund Stoiber (CSU): also a long-time Minister-President of Bavaria. The CDU/CSU nominated him in 2002, but the CDU/CSU, now allied with the FDP, again failed to reach the necessary majority. Once protesting against Brussels, he now heads an office there, which hunts down and kills unnecessary regulation—or at least is supposed to. At times it can look dismayingly like the Department of Administrative Affairs.
SPD (Red): the Social Democratic Party of Germany. Once an unambiguously left party in the Marxist tradition, they gradually scrapped many of the socialist ideas in favor of centre-left 'social democracy'. Governs several states, and is currently the small partner in the Merkel government. The SPD is the oldest party in Germany and probably the most influential. The Precursors of the SPD were the Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei Deutschland (SDAP) (Social Democratic Workers' Party of Germany) and the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein (General German Worker's Union) which united in 1875 to become the Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschland (SAPD) (Socialist Workers' Party of Germany). The founding fathers were August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht. Under Bismarck, it was banned from 1878 to 1890 by the "Sozialistengesetz" (Socialist Act). After the anulment of the Socialist Act in 1890 it changed its name to Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland (SPD).
Two Reichskanzler (Imperial Chancellors) in Weimar: Gustav Bauer (1919-1920), Herrmann Müller (1920) and (1928-1930)
One Reichspräsident (Imperial President) in Weimar: Friedrich Ebert (1919-25)
Three Bundeskanzler (Federal Chancellors) in the BRD: Willy Brandt 1969-74, Helmut Schmidt 1974-82 and Gerhard Schröder 1998-2005.
Two Bundespräsidenten (Federal Presidents): Gustav Heinemann 1969-74 and Johannes Rau 1999-2004
FDP (Yellow or Blue-Yellow): Free Democratic Party, a liberal party, in the European sense (for those from the USA: moderately libertarian) with pro-civil-rights and pro-business views. Currently mostly coalition junior partners to the CDU/CSU. In the 2013 election, they didn't reach the 5-percent hurdle and is thus not in the Bundestag, marking the first time since the inception of the party where it isn't part of it.
Two Federal Presidents: Theodor Heuss 1949-59, Walter Scheel 1974-79
Hans-Dietrich Genscher: was foreign minister for 18 years (1974-92), where he generally followed Scheel's example of a foreign policy of trying to reach good behavior of other nations through good relations with them. Resigned when that didn't work in the beginning Yugoslavia conflict.
Guido Westerwelle: Leader of the party 2001-2011, Vice-Chancellor 2009-2011, and Foreign Minister 2009-2013, he attempted to follow Genscher's model. It didn't really work: he was blamed for the FDP's massive losses in the 2011 federal elections, and was forced to resign as Vice-Chancellor and party chief. His record as FM isn't much better, as he's been criticized by some in his own ministry for being too cautious and too inexperienced at foreign affairs. On the bright side, he's the highest-ranking openly gay man in German history.
Philipp Rösler: Westerwelle's successor as party chief and Vice-Chancellor. Interesting for being adopted Vietnamese.
Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (Green): A combination of the old West German Green Party and a collection of GDR civil rights activists (Alliance 90), it is the most successful such party in the world. Partnered with the SPD in the Schröder era, the German involvement in the 1999 war against Yugoslavia led to some resignations from the party. In 2011, the Greens "won" an election for the first time in traditionally-CDU Baden-Württemberg and now provide the Minister-President due to the seat distribution: Coalition 71 (Greens 36, SPD 35), Opposition 67 (CDU 60, FDP 7)
Petra Kelly: "led" the Greens in their early years (if such was possible). Died with her partner Gert Bastian in a murder-suicide.
Joseph "Joschka" Fischer: evolved from brick-throwing Marxist in the 1960s to state environment minister in Hesse in the 1980s to foreign minister under Schröder. Famously told the Vice-President of the Bundestag in the 1980s, "Mit Verlaub, Herr Präsident, Sie sind ein Arschloch" ("With respect, Mr. President, you are an asshole"). Now still is one of the most popular and respected politicians, across party lines, occasionally tossed around as a possible presidential candidate.
Winfried Kretschmann: first Green Minister-President. It helped that he's more conservative than the average Green, though not right-wing.
Die Linke (Red, or Pink since the SPD already took Red): The Left Party is a recent merger of the relatively new WASG (founded by disgruntled Social Democrats) and the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism). The PDS in turn was once the Socialist Unity Party (SED) that ran East Germany, but lost most of its old members when it lost power. With the merger, former SPD chairman Lafontaine joined in, resulting in the party becoming more popular. The Left Party is strongest in the Eastern states and Lafontaine's home state of Saarland.
Gregor Gysi: straddled between system and opposition in East Germany, then became chairman of the SED-PDS in the winter of 1989/1990 when the job basically meant seeing the party losing the rest of their power. Managed to turn the party into a regular democratic party with left-wing views.
Oskar Lafontaine: had been the SPD Minister-President of Saarland in the 1980s and 90s and was SPD candidate for Chancellor 1990, then lost when reunification came. Later became SPD chairman, and minister for economy and finances when Schröder became Chancellor 1998. He resigned soon, giving as reason that Schröder wasn't left-wing enough, but he had enough time in the post to campaign vigorously for European integration and the Euro; for this reason Euroskeptics across the continent hated him, with The Sun calling him "the most dangerous man in Europe". Joined the Left Party when it was formed in the PDS-WASG merger, and became their chairman.
Three other parties are currently also talked about:
Piraten (Orange): The Pirate Party is very young, its main demands are more personal liberties, transparency, democracy and social equality. Got 2% in federal and state elections until they reached 9% in Berlin in September 2011; now state and federal polls show them entering most parliaments if elections were held now. But it's not clear yet whether their current strength is the result of real support or just protest against the others.
Freie Wähler (Blue, sometimes Orange): Free Voters are usually local independent centrist or center-right groups that formed to run for local elections. State or federal organisations used to be only for coordination, but 2008 they won 10% in Bavaria's state election and also ran in the EU Parliament elections 2009 (where they would have won 2 of Germany's 99 seats if the 5%-threshold had been struck down by then).
NPD (Brown): Had been a far-right party since its formation in the 1960s as a coalition of several smaller ultraconservative and nationalist parties and was elected very rarely. Around the last decade it became worse than other such parties by its apparent alliance with violent Neo-Nazis. An attempt to declare it anticonstitutional (which would lead to the dissolution of the party and prevention of attempts to restart it with another name) in 2003 failed because the Constitutional Court did not see it proven beyond reasonable doubt that the undercover agents used by the police were not responsible for the violence (but the party's reaction to the trial suggested that the undercover agents worked for the party and fooled the police rather than the other way around).
Alternativ für Deutschland (Blue and Red): A new center-right party, founded only in 2013, as a response to the ongoing Eurocrisis. They're generally considered a Eurosceptic party, though they'll remind you that they're not anti-EU, just anti-Euro. As can be guessed, they're pretty much a single-issue party: get rid of the Euro. In the 2013 election they received 4.7% of the vote, just under the 5% threshold required to get seats. Time will tell whether AfD can become a lasting party or if they'll fizzle out once the Eurocrisis starts to die down.