Learn about Germany’s democracy and how expats can participate. Use our guide to the German government and political system.
Germany has been a unified nation since 1990 although the roots of its current political system can be traced back to 1949. There is a federal German government that holds central power, as well as strong regional and local governments that play a key role in areas such as education, public health, and transport.
This guide covers the key areas of politics and government in Germany, with sections on:
- German government and political system
- Who is currently in power in Germany?
- German political parties
- Electoral system in Germany
- Voting in Germany
- Political representation in Germany
- German political history
- Judiciary system in Germany
- Political tensions in Germany
- Germany and the EU
- State of the German economy
- Grassroots politics and political activism in Germany
- Useful resources
Government and political system in Germany
Two chambers exercise legislative power: the Bundestag – German parliament – with 709 elected MPs; and the Bundesrat, which represents the 16 federal German states (Länder) and operates as the upper chamber similar to the US Senate or the UK House of Lords.
Germany has a written constitution, known as the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany (Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland). It came into effect on 23 May 1949 and was adopted by the united German state on 3 October 1990.
Germany ranks 14th on the 2020 Democracy Index.
Who is currently in power in Germany?
German Chancellor and Federal President
Although the official head of state in Germany is the elected Federal President, this is a largely ceremonial role. Decision-making power rests mostly with the German Chancellor (Bundeskanzler), who is the head of the German government and its chief executive.
The Federal President is elected for a five-year term in a secret ballot by a Federal Convention consisting of Bundestag and Bundesrat representatives. The German Chancellor is typically the leader of the largest party in German elections, held every four years. The President and the Chancellor don’t have to be from the same political party.
The current German Chancellor is Angela Merkel, former leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the first female to hold the post. She has been in power since 2005. Merkel stood down as CDU leader in 2018 and said that she won’t run for a fifth term in office in 2021.
The current President is Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), who won 74.3% of the vote in 2017. The next presidential election is due in 2022.
Political parties in power
Since 1966, all federal German governments have consisted of at least two parties. This is led by the largest party in the election who will form a coalition with other parties. The CDU/CSU (union between the CDU and the Christian Social Union of Bavaria) has been in a coalition with the SPD since 2013 to form a grand coalition.
The last German elections were in 2017. The CDU/CSU won 246 seats (and 32.9% of the vote), beating the SPD with 153 seats (20.5% of the vote). This was a smaller victory for the CDU/CSU than in the 2013 election where they won 311 seats and 41.5% of the vote.
Most opinion polls for the 2021 election put the CDU/CSU ahead on around 30% of the vote, with the Greens second (around 18%) and the SPD third (15%).
Main political parties in Germany
The CDU/CSU is a union between the two conservative Christian parties in Germany. These are the Christian Democratic Union (Christlich-Demokratische Union Deutschlands – CDU) and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern – CSU). The two parties have always had a close relationship and have been in a union since Germany became a federal republic in 1949.
The CDU/CSU have been in power for just over 50 years in total since 1949. They have been leading a coalition government since 2005. The CSU contests elections in Bavaria while the CDU operates in the other 15 German States. They currently have 245 parliamentary seats (200 for CDU, 45 for CSU).
The CDU, currently led by Armin Laschet, was founded in 1945. It grew out of the now defunct Catholic Centre Party dating back to 1870. The party stands for conservative social values, a social market economy, and European integration. Support comes mainly from Catholic areas in the south and west of the country, although in recent years the party has attracted people with different or no religious faiths.
The CSU, whose current leader is Markus Söder, was also formed in 1945. Although the CSU and the CDU agree on most issues, the CSU is generally the more socially conservative of the two parties.
Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands – SPD)
The SPD is Germany’s oldest political party, founded in 1875. Created from a merger of two socialist workers’ organizations, the SPD was originally a Marxist party and it continues to draw most of its support from working-class communities largely in Protestant northern areas and the industrial cities of the Ruhr.
The party is second only to the CDU/CSU in terms of electoral success. It has formed coalition German governments with the FDP and the Greens in the past. The SPD was the most successful party in the late twentieth and early 20th centuries but lost voters when the SPD chancellor made welfare cuts in the early 2000s, and then later when the Left Party formed. It has been in a grand coalition with the CDU/CSU since 2013 and currently has 152 parliamentary seats.
In recent years, the SPD has made efforts to attract middle-class voters. The party platform is social democracy, believing in a strengthened social market economy, a welfare state, civil rights, and European integration. The current party co-leaders are Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans.
Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland – AfD)
The AfD is a right-wing populist and nationalist German party formed in 2013. The party is known for its opposition to EU membership, anti-immigration policies, and conservative positions such as opposing same-sex marriage and moves towards renewable energy.
Formed in 2013, the AfD won seven seats at the 2014 European elections and then became the third biggest party in the 2017 German elections. It currently has 88 seats although according to polls its vote-share will fall slightly in 2021. The current party co-leaders are Jörg Meuthen and Tino Chrupalla.
Free Democratic Party (Freie Demokratische Partei – FDP)
The FDP is Germany’s liberal party, believing in both economic and social liberalism, similar to the Liberal Democrats in the UK. This means it supports a free market economy, civil liberties, human rights, and internationalism. It occupies the ground between the center and center-right.
The FDP was founded in 1948. It has been the junior partner in coalition governments with both of the main parties, meaning that it has actually spent more time in power than any other party.
The FDP currently has 80 parliamentary seats. Current polling suggests that it will slightly increase its vote-share in the 2021 elections. The current party leader is Christian Lindner.
The Left (Die Linke)
The Left Party was formed in 2007 when the successor to the communist party ruling East Germany – the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) – merged with the trade unionists and left-wing breakaway SPD members of the Labour and Social Justice Party (WASG).
It’s the most traditionally left-wing party in the Bundestag. Janine Wissler and Susanne Hennig-Wellsow are co-leaders. It stands for democratic socialist policies and Keynesian economics including increased government public spending and more taxes for corporations and high earners. Many voters are from the older generation and its members span from communists to social democrats.
The Left currently has 69 parliamentary seats although polls predict its vote-share to fall from 9.2% to around 7% in the 2021 elections.
Alliance 90/The Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen)
The Greens formed in 1993 with the merger of the western Green Party and the eastern German Alliance ‘90.
Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock are the leaders of the party. Other than environmental sustainability, the party’s key issues include social justice, pro-European federalism, high welfare spending, and support for gender equality and LGBT rights.
The party formed a coalition with the SPD between 1998-2005. It won 67 seats in the 2017 elections but polls predict it will fare much better in 2021. Having been the sixth biggest party last time, it is currently second in polling with its vote-share predicted to increase from 8.9% to around 18-19%.
Electoral system in the German government
German elections take place every four years. Each voter in Germany gets two votes. The first vote is a direct vote for a constituency MP. This determines 299 parliamentary seats, with MPs being the candidates with overall majorities in the 299 German constituencies.
The second vote is from a party list. Voters choose which party they want to vote for. The remaining 299 MPs are determined by the overall share of votes. MPs elected via the first vote are taken into consideration. So, for example, if a party’s share of the second vote gives them 12 MPs and they win 9 constituency seats through the first vote, they can fill the remaining 3 seats with their top candidates from a pre-published list.
In addition to this, there are currently 111 overhang or so-called balance seats. This is to redress any imbalances where a party’s overall share of the vote entitles them to fewer MPs than they won directly through the first vote. For example, if a party has 10 candidates that win in individual constituencies through the first vote but they only win 8 MPs in total through second vote PR, they get two overhang seats to ensure that they have the minimum number of directly elected MPs.
To prevent too much fragmentation and too many smaller splinter parties from entering parliament, each party must win at least 5% of the vote to gain a parliamentary seat.
German government and Cabinet of Ministers
The party with the most overall MPs in Germany forms a government, either on their own if they have a majority (over 50% of seats) or in coalition with other parties to take them over the 50% threshold if not. Most German governments since World War Two have been coalitions.
The Chancellor then forms a Cabinet of Ministers (Bundesregierung), the executive body of parliament, to head the different departments such as employment, health, and defense. There are currently 15 German cabinet ministers including the Chancellor.
The Bundesrat is the German upper chamber, or second chamber. It currently consists of 69 representatives of the 16 German states. Each state gets between 3-6 representatives, based on its population. For example, Bavaria (population of nearly 13 million) has six members while Saarland (just under a million inhabitants) has three members.
In contrast to the elected Bundestag MPs, the members of the Bundesrat are delegated by their respective state governments. They don’t serve for a fixed period of time.
Voting in Germany
Germans vote in four different types of elections – parliamentary, state, municipal and European. However, foreign residents who are not German citizens can only vote in municipal and European elections.
Only German citizens older than age 18 can vote in parliamentary (Bundestagswahl) and state (Landtagswahl) elections. In Brandenburg, Schleswig-Holstein, Bremen, and Hamburg, you can vote in state elections from the age of 16. These happen every 4-5 years and dates vary across the 16 German states.
EU/EFTA citizens can vote in municipal/local (Kommunalwahl) and European (Europawahl) elections. The voting age is 18 for European elections and 16 for municipal elections. However, five states (Saxony, Saarland, Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse, and Bavaria) have raised the voting age to 18 for all elections.
Non-EU residents in Germany cannot vote unless they become German or EU citizens. Additionally, prisoners, those detained in psychiatric hospitals, and people convicted of treason cannot vote.
German government elections usually take place on a Sunday. You need to go to a polling station with your polling card and valid ID to cast your ballot. You can vote by absentee ballot if unable to attend in person. Many Germans living abroad do this. Registering to vote is automatic when you register your address with your local authority.
Voter turnout in Germany is typically high and was 76.2% in the 2017 parliamentary elections.
Political representation in the German government
Anyone who is a German citizen over 18 and eligible to vote can stand for office in German elections. The exception is in the state of Hesse where you have to be at least 21 to become a state representative. EU citizens who are German residents can stand as candidates in European elections.
In terms of political representation, women and immigrant groups remain underrepresented. 31.4% of MPs elected in 2017 were female. Around 8% of MPs have immigrant backgrounds (either not born as German citizens themselves or have a parent who was not) compared to over 22% of the general population at the time of the election.
Political history of Germany
The history of the modern German political system goes back to the end of World War Two. Germany was divided into four zones (France, UK, US, and USSR) following the Allied victory over the Nazis. Two separate states emerged in 1949 – the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG or West Germany) including the French, UK, and US zones; and the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR or East Germany) consisting of the Russian zone.
The two states officially reunified on 3 October 1990 following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the collapse of East European Communism. The GDR joined the Federal Republic, five new states were established or re-established, and East and West Berlin became a single unified state. The 1949 constitution established by West Germany became the constitution for the whole German nation.
Germany has remained a stable democracy since 1990, governed by a series of coalitions involving – at different times – the CDU/CSU, SPD, FDP, and the Greens. However, the eastern parts have remained more economically disadvantaged than the west since reunification. Angela Merkel has been in power since 2005 after the SPD embarked on a series of unpopular labor market reforms and welfare cuts. Merkel’s CDU has headed four centrist/center-right coalitions, although there has been a growth in support for parties on both the left and right in recent years.
Judiciary system in Germany
Germany, similar to many other democracies, has a judiciary that is independent of the executive and legislative branches of the state. It operates a system of civil law based on its constitution, codes and statutes passed by Federal Parliament, and EU laws.
There are three types of German courts:
- Constitutional courts, which are the Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) and the constitutional courts in each of the 16 states. The Federal Constitutional Court is the Supreme Court in Germany and can rule in cases where there is a breach of someone’s constitutional rights.
- Ordinary courts, which deal with most civil and criminal cases. These include local courts, regional courts and the Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof) which is the court of appeal in matters of civil and criminal law.
- Specialized courts, which consist of administrative courts, labor courts, financial courts and social courts.
Judges in German courts get more involved in cases than in many other countries. For example, they cross-examine witnesses and defendants and review evidence rather than just preside over cases and give verdicts.
The Federal Constitutional Court has 16 judges, half elected by the Bundestag and half by the Bundesrat.
Political tensions in Germany
The biggest tensions in the German government and politics in recent years have been around immigration, particularly concerning asylum-seekers and refugees. During the 2015-16 refugee crisis, Germany received over 1.2 million asylum applications – more than any other European country.
Although many of these new arrivals have since integrated successfully into German society, the sudden increase in immigration divided German citizens. Around 40% believed that the country wasn’t equipped to cope with this number of refugees. The right-wing anti-immigrant AfD party capitalized on tensions to become the biggest opposition party in the 2017 German elections. However, asylum applications have reduced dramatically since then and the AfD party is predicted to lose seats at the 2021 parliamentary elections.
Germany and the European Union/EEA
Germany is a founding member of the EU and has been a member state since 1958. It has also been a Schengen Area country since 1995 and part of the Eurozone since 1999. There are currently 96 German MEPs and the country has permanent representation in Brussels.
Although Germany is a key participant in European politics and the majority of its citizens support EU membership, Euroscepticism has increased in recent years. The AfD party has campaigned on an anti-EU platform as well as for a withdrawal from the Eurozone. It won 94 seats in the 2017 German elections and 11 seats in the 2019 European elections.
The state of the economy in Germany
Germany has a highly developed social market economy that is the largest in Europe and the 4th largest in the world in terms of GDP. It is also the 16th largest by GDP per capita. The service sector accounts for around 70% of GDP. Germany is also one of the world’s largest exporters, with cars, electronics, pharmaceuticals, and food among its top exported products.
As with much of the rest of the world, Germany took a hit economically due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, growth is predicted to reach 3.3% in 2021 and 4.4% in 2022, having dropped by 4.9% in 2020. Unemployment currently stands at 5.6% (July 2021) having hit a peak of 6.4% at the height of the pandemic.
Grassroots politics and political activism in Germany
Local political activism in Germany varies across states and regions. Unsurprisingly, you’ll find more groups and grassroots events in bigger cities such as Berlin and Munich. Nationally, some of the bigger recent movements include Stand Up (Aufstehen), an attempt by the German left to encourage people to engage with politics and grassroots activism. Extinction Rebellion has also been active in Germany, holding many demonstrations.
Ways to get involved with politics or political/social causes in Germany include:
- Joining a Citizens Initiative (Volksbegehren or burgerbegehren) – these are a form of local direct democracy where citizens campaign for a particular issue. If there is enough local support, citizens can force a referendum on the issue. One successful example is a petition to improve cycling infrastructure in Berlin.
- Attending a local government meeting (Bezirksverordneteversammlung – BVV) – these are held monthly in most municipalities. If you are an EU citizen, you can stand to become a local councillor.
- Founding your own charity or community group – if you have enough time on your hands and a cause that you believe in, you could look at forming your own non-profit group or organization (Verein). You can find out how to do so here.