The federal government consists of the chancellor and his or her cabinet ministers. As explained above, the Basic Law invests the chancellor with central executive authority. For that reason, some observers refer to the German political system as a “chancellor democracy.” The chancellor’s authority emanates from the provisions of the Basic Law and from his or her status as leader of the party or coalition of parties holding a majority of seats in the Bundestag. Every four years, after national elections and the seating of the newly elected Bundestag members, the federal president nominates a chancellor candidate to that parliamentary body; the chancellor is elected by majority vote in the Bundestag.
The Basic Law limits parliament’s control over the chancellor and the cabinet. Unlike most parliamentary legislatures, the Bundestag cannot remove the chancellor simply with a vote of no-confidence. In the Weimar Republic, this procedure was abused by parties of both political extremes in order to oppose chancellors and undermine the democratic process. As a consequence, the Basic Law allows only for a “constructive vote of no-confidence.” That is, the Bundestag can remove a chancellor only when it simultaneously agrees on a successor. This legislative mechanism ensures both an orderly transfer of power and an initial parliamentary majority in support of the new chancellor. The constructive no-confidence vote makes it harder to remove a chancellor because opponents of the chancellor not only must disagree with his or her governing but also must agree on a replacement.
As of 1995, the Bundestag had tried to pass a constructive no-confidence vote twice, but had succeeded only once. In 1972 the opposition parties tried to replace Chancellor Willy Brandt of the SPD with the CDU party leader because of profound disagreements over the government’s policies toward Eastern Europe. The motion fell one vote shy of the necessary majority. In late 1982, the CDU convinced the FDP to leave its coalition with the SPD over differences on economic policy and to form a new government with the CDU and the CSU. The constructive no-confidence vote resulted in the replacement of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt with Helmut Kohl, the CDU party leader. Observers agree that the constructive no-confidence vote has increased political stability in Germany.
The chancellor also may make use of a second type of no-confidence vote to garner legislative support in the Bundestag. The chancellor can append a simple no-confidence provision to any government legislative proposal. If the Bundestag rejects the proposal, the chancellor may request that the president dissolve parliament and call new elections. Although not commonly used, this procedure enables the chancellor to gauge support in the Bundestag for the government and to increase pressure on the Bundestag to vote in favor of legislation that the government considers as critical. Furthermore, governments have employed this simple no-confidence motion as a means of bringing about early Bundestag elections. For example, after Kohl became chancellor through the constructive no-confidence vote in August 1982, his government purposely set out to lose a simple no-confidence provision in order to bring about new elections and give voters a chance to validate the new government through a democratic election.
Article 65 of the Basic Law sets forth three principles that define how the executive branch functions. First, the “chancellor principle” makes the chancellor responsible for all government policies. Any formal policy guidelines issued by the chancellor are legally binding directives that cabinet ministers must implement. Cabinet ministers are expected to introduce specific policies at the ministerial level that reflect the chancellor’s broader guidelines. Second, the “principle of ministerial autonomy” entrusts each minister with the freedom to supervise departmental operations and prepare legislative proposals without cabinet interference so long as the minister’s policies are consistent with the chancellor’s larger guidelines. Third, the “cabinet principle” calls for disagreements between federal ministers over jurisdictional or budgetary matters to be settled by the cabinet.
The chancellor determines the composition of the cabinet. The federal president formally appoints and dismisses cabinet ministers, at the recommendation of the chancellor; no Bundestag approval is needed. According to the Basic Law, the chancellor may set the number of cabinet ministers and dictate their specific duties. Chancellor Ludwig Erhard had the largest cabinet, with twenty-two ministers, in the mid-1960s. Kohl presided over seventeen ministers at the start of his fourth term in 1994.
The power of the smaller coalition partners, the FDP and the CSU, was evident from the distribution of cabinet posts in Kohl’s government in 1995. The FDP held three ministries–the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Justice, and Ministry for Economics. CSU members led four ministries–the Ministry of Finance, Ministry for Health, Ministry for Post and Telecommunications, and Ministry for Economic Cooperation.
The staff of a cabinet minister is managed by at least two state secretaries, both of whom are career civil servants responsible for the ministry’s administration, and a parliamentary state secretary, who is generally a member of the Bundestag and represents the ministry there and in other political forums. Typically, state secretaries remain in the ministry beyond the tenure of any one government, in contrast to the parliamentary state secretary, who is a political appointee and is viewed as a junior member of the government whose term ends with the minister’s. Under these top officials, the ministries are organized functionally in accordance with each one’s specific responsibilities. Career civil servants constitute virtually the entire staff of the ministries.
German Government and Politics
The President in Germany
The Legislature in German Politics
Federalism in Germany
The German Constitution
Bundesrat of Germany
Electoral System of Germany
German Political Parties
Extra Party Political Forces in Germany