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State and Law

The Basic Law

"The dignity of man is inviolable. To respect and protect it is the duty of all state authority." (Art. 1:1 of the Basic Law)
"(1) The Federal Republic of Germany is a democratic and social federal state. (2) All state authority emanates from the people. It is exercised by the people by means of elections and voting and by separate legislative, executive and judicial organs. (3) Legislation is subject to the constitutional order; the executive and the judiciary are bound by law and justice." (Art. 20: 1, 2 and 3 of the Basic Law)

The Basic Law ("Grundgesetz", abbreviation: GG) is the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany. The articles of the Basic Law have precedence over all other German laws and form the basis of the value system in Germany. The Basic Law defines the basic rights that the individual is constitutionally guaranteed. Changes to the constitution need a majority of two thirds of the Bundestag (German parliament), and two thirds of the votes of members of the Bundesrat (upper house of parliament).

Bundestag and Bundesrat


The "Bundestag" (German parliament) sits in the capital, Berlin. The parliament is made up of elected members. The electoral system is a mixture of majority voting and proportional representation. Half of the seats in parliament are awarded by direct voting, the other half are awarded via lists of candidates drawn up by the political parties in each federal state.

The Bundestag is the highest legislative organ in Germany. All federal legislature stems from the Bundestag.

Germany is a federal parliamentary democracy, made up of 16 federal states. Many laws and decrees can only come into force after they have also been passed by the federal states. The federal states meet in the Bundesrat, also called "Länderkammer" (chamber of parliament), which comprises elected members of each state government. The Bundesrat also sits in Berlin.

Hyperlink: www.bundestag.de

Hyperlink: www.bundesrat.de

Bundestag in the Reichstag

The Bundestag sits in the building known as the Reichstag. It was built at the end of the 19th century during the "German Empire". The name Reichstag means Empire Building.

The politicians represented in the Bundestag are the members of parliament. They are called "Mitglieder des Bundestages" (MdB).

German President and Federal Chancellor

The head of state in Germany is the Federal President. The presidency is primarily a ceremonial post. The President represents Germany and does not have any authority to make political decisions. He/she is elected for a term of five years by the so-called "Bundesversammlung", a special federal assembly comprising members of the Bundestag, the Bundesrat and figures from public life in Germany.

The leader of the government is the Federal Chancellor. The Chancellor and ministers (e.g. foreign minister, finance minister, interior minister) make up the "cabinet", in other words, the government. According to the Basic Law, the German Chancellor determines the guidelines for his/her government’s policies. The ministers represent their respective portfolios independently and autonomously, within the guidelines set by the Chancellor. To elect a Chancellor, a majority vote of members of parliament is needed.

Hyperlink: www.bundespraesident.de

Hyperlink: www.bundeskanzler.de

Hyperlink: www.bundesregierung.de

German Chancellors and their Terms of Office:

Federal Constitutional Court

Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court is the highest court in the land and sits in Karlsruhe. The court decides on constitutional cases brought by German citizens and examines the constitutionality of German laws. The judges in the Constitutional Court are also informally known as the "Rote Roben" (Red Robes) due to their clothing.

Hyperlink: www.bundesverfassungsgericht.de

Federal States

The Federal Republic of Germany is a federal republic comprising 16 states. Three of the states are known as "city states" ("Stadtstaaten"): Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg. All federal states have their own state parliament ("Landtag") and state government ("Landesregierung"). The heads of government in each state are called "Ministerpräsidenten" (State Premiers) and in the city states they are called the "Erster" or "Regierender Bürgermeister" (First Mayor or Governing Mayor). State elections are held independently of the general federal elections. The legislative periods in the federal states vary between four and five years.




Members of the state and federal parliaments are elected in general, direct, free, equal and secret elections by German citizens of eighteen years of age or older. Anyone who is eligible to vote is also eligible to stand for election.

Elections to the Bundestag

Elections for the Bundestag take place every four years. As is the case for the majority of state elections, voters cast two ballots. The "Erststimme" (first ballot) is a vote for a direct candidate via majority voting. The "Zweitstimme" (second ballot) is a vote for a party by means of proportional representation. The second vote is the more important. The percentage of votes for each party in the second ballot decides the number of seats each party receives in the Bundestag. A party can only be represented in parliament if five per cent of second ballot votes are received (known as the "five per cent hurdle") or if members of that party win at least three direct mandates (in the first ballot) in at least three separate constituencies.

The members of each party join together in parliament to form a parliamentary group ("Fraktion"). Usually a number of parliamentary groups form a "coalition". This guarantees a "majority vote" in parliament. The coalition also proposes the Chancellor, the head of government, and his ministers. The Federal Government is the executive organ of the federal republic and has the right to instigate legislation.

Hyperlink: www.bundeswahlleiter.de

Elections to the State Parliaments and the European Parliament

Elections to the state parliaments are held in each of the 16 states every four of five years.

European Parliament elections are held every five years. The "European Parliament" is the parliament of the European Union (EU). The EU has 25 member states at the present time. Germany is a founding member of the European Union. Citizens of a member state of the EU residing in Germany have the right to vote in European Parliament elections.

The homepage of the European Parliament can be found at Hyperlink: www.europarl.eu.int

Local Elections

In addition to federal and state elections, there are also local or communal elections in each city, town and local community. These institutions are often called "Kommunalparlamente" (communal parliaments). They decide independently on matters relating to the local community within the framework of the federal or state legislature. This is described as "communal self-government". The highest representative in a city or town is the mayor ("Oberbürgermeister" or "Bürgermeister") while in rural districts it is the "chief administrative officer" ("Landrat").

Foreigner Voting Rights and Foreigners Advisory Council


General voting rights only apply to German citizens. But some people can vote in certain circumstances even without German citizenship.

Since 1994, citizens of the European Union have been allowed to vote and stand for election in local elections if they have been registered in the community for a period of at least three months. In German this is referred to as "passiv" (to stand for election) and "aktiv" (to be allowed to vote).

EU citizens are also eligible to vote for European Parliament elections if they choose to vote in Germany rather than in their country of citizenship. EU citizens wishing to vote in European elections for the first time in Germany must register with their local authority. Information on this is available from the election office of the local authority.

Non-EU citizens do not have voting rights for local, state, federal and European elections in Germany. The only way to influence politics in their community is by way of the Foreigners Advisory Councils ("Ausländerbeiräte"). These councils exist in many German towns and cities. They advise and support local politics. Members of the local community of foreigners elect the foreign members of the council.

You can find out if there is a council in your local community, how the elections take place and how it functions at your local authority.

You can also acquire further information on Foreigners Advisory Councils at the Federal Foreigners Advisory Council, the federation of a large number of local councils: Hyperlink: www.bundesauslaenderbeirat.de.

Political Parties

Political parties are laid down in the constitution as a fixed part of the free and democratic foundation of the German state. They are formed by groups of like-minded citizens who wish to exercise influence on the political system in Germany and act as representatives of the people in the Bundestag and in the state parliaments over a longer period of time. They have to make guarantees, however, as to the seriousness of their political aims and they must prove that they will adhere to the democratic principles of the German state.

Parties that are currently represented in the German parliament, the Bundestag, are listed here in alphabetical order:

The local party offices provide information on the admission requirements for joining their respective parties. As a general rule, non-German citizens can also become members of political parties in Germany. There are also numerous other smaller parties not represented in the Bundestag. Parties such as the "DVU", "Republikaner" or "NPD" are parties with extreme nationalistic or right wing tendencies.

Federal and State Centre for Political Education

Wide-ranging information on German politics, society, culture and industry and on the German constitution can be acquired at the "Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung" (Federal and State Centre for Political Education).

Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung

Berliner Freiheit 7
53111 Bonn
Tel: 01888 / 515-0

Hyperlink: www.bpb.de

You can also contact the "Landeszentrale für politische Bildung" in each of the federal states.

Rule of Law

Constitutional states are distinguished by the division of powers and the binding of the state authority to the law and the constitution.

In terms of functions, it is differentiated between the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. These functions are assigned to independent state organs (parliaments, government, courts). According to the Basic Law, all state organs, including the legislators, are subject to the constitutional order. Administrative authorities and courts are subject to law. The state is not only obliged to respect, but also to protect human dignity (Art. 1 Basic Law). Individuals are guaranteed basic rights that they can cite against the state. If somebody feels that the state has violated their basic rights, they can take legal action to the extent of making a constitutional complaint, i.e. a decision made by an administrative authority can be scrutinised by independent courts.

The jurisdiction in Germany comprises five branches:

Court rulings in Germany are made by independent professional judges. Most judges are appointed for life and their rulings are only subject to law.

Public prosecutors act in criminal proceedings. They are responsible for determining and clarifying the facts of a case when it is suspected that a crime has been committed.

As independent advisors and representatives, lawyers act in a freelance capacity in all legal matters. Their payment is determined in accordance with a system of fixed fees. People on low incomes can receive legal aid.

Pluralism and Subsidiarity

The political and social landscape in Germany is defined to a great extent by political parties, numerous interest groups from industry and society, citizens’ action groups, scientific institutes and the media. The term "pluralism" is used to describe public discussions and the forming of opinions.

A table of the larger and more well known groups, which are mentioned regularly in the media, can be found at the end of this document.

Bürgerinitiativen (citizens’ action groups) are groups of residents that come together to follow the same political, social, cultural or economic goal.

Subsidiarity is a socio-ethical principle that encourages individuals to develop their individual abilities and which promotes self-determination and personal responsibility. In the political arena this means that many public tasks in Germany are carried out by Non-Governmental Organisations and churches. The English abbreviation "NGO" is also often used in Germany to describe these organsations. This sharing of responsibilities is what is known as the "Principle of Subsidiarity". With the exception of certain areas that must remain under the exclusive jurisdiction of the state, such as the police, the justice system and the military, the state should endeavour to allocate as many social tasks as possible to NGO's, i.e. the respective lowest authority is given precedence to act over the higher authority. In the field of government, the principle of subsidiarity has until now been applied to the sharing of responsibilities between the local communities and the state and between the government and the federal states. The state should only step in when NGO's are no longer able to accomplish these tasks to the satisfaction of the German state and public. The work carried out by these groups e.g. in social and cultural fields is in the main financed by public funding.

Charitable Organisations

Many social functions ranging from youth and elderly work to family and health advice are undertaken by charitable organisations ("Wohlfahrtsverbände"). These include the workers charity "Arbeiterwohlfahrt" (AWO), "Der Paritätische Wohlfahrtsverband" and the German Red Cross ("Deutsches Rotes Kreuz", DRK). They are non-denominational. The "Diakonie" or the "Diakonisches Werk" is the association of the Protestant Church. The "Caritas" is the association of the Catholic Church. You are eligible to receive help from the "Diakonische Werk" or "Caritas" whatever your religion. There are also numerous clubs, groups and associations in the cities and regions that undertake social and cultural responsibilities and which are politically active.

Information: A list of addresses can be found in chapter Cross-reference: Organisations and Contacts.

Trade Unions and Employers

The Basic Law entitles employers and employees the right to negotiate in written agreements (collective agreements) the rights and duties of the employers and employees. This is known as free collective bargaining. The collective bargaining agreements stipulate minimum standards, which can only be departed from if it benefits the employees. Collective bargaining agreements determine, for example, the level of remuneration in the respective wage and salary groups ("Entgelt-Tarifvertrag") by defining specific job characteristics. They also specify work conditions, work times and holiday rights.

As a wage bargainer, trade unions represent the social and economic interests of the employees (workers, civil servants, trainees). The German trade unions are independent of the state and parties. They are unified trade unions that are organised according to the principle of industrial organisation ("Industrieverbandsprinzip"), i.e. they represent the interests not of specific occupations but of employees working in a given industry. The term "employer" is often used figuratively to refer to the employer associations, e.g. the Bundesvereinigung der Deutschen Arbeitgeberverbände (Confederation of German Employers’ Associations – BDA) or the Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie (German Confederation of Industry – BDI).

See also chapter Cross-reference: Individual and Collective Labour Law