Germany has a parliamentary system of government in which the Chancellor (similar to a Prime Minister or Minister President in other parliamentary democracies) is the head of government. The president has far-reaching ceremonial obligations, but also the right and duty to act politically. He can give direction to general political and societal debates and has some important "reserve powers" in case of political instability (such as those provided for by Article 81 of the Basic Law). The president also holds the prerogative to grant pardons on behalf of the federation. The German presidents, who can be elected to two consecutive five-year terms, have wide discretion about how they exercise their official duties.
Under Article 59 (1) of the Basic Law (German Constitution), the president represents the Federal Republic of Germany in matters of international law, concludes treaties with foreign states on its behalf and accredits diplomats. Furthermore, all federal laws must be signed by the president before they can come into effect, but usually they only veto a law if they believe it to violate the constitution.
The president, by his actions and public appearances, represents the state itself, its existence, legitimacy, and unity.
The president is elected for a term of five years by secret ballot, without debate, by a specially convened Federal Convention which mirrors the aggregated majority position in the Bundestag (the federal parliament) and in the parliaments of the 16 German states. The convention consists of all Bundestag members, as well as an equal number of electors elected by the state legislatures in proportion to their respective populations. Since reunification, all Federal Conventions have had more than 1200 members, as the Bundestag has always had more than 600 since then. It is not required that state electors are chosen from the members of the state legislature; often some prominent citizens are chosen.
The German constitution, the Basic Law, requires that the convention be convened no later than 30 days before the scheduled expiry of the sitting president's term or 30 days after a premature expiry of a president's term. The body is convened and chaired by the President of the Bundestag. From 1979 to 2009, all these conventions were held on 23 May, the anniversary of the foundation of the Federal Republic in 1949. However, the two most recent elections before 2017 were held on different dates after the incumbent presidents, Horst Köhler and Christian Wulff, resigned before the end of their terms, in 2010 and 2012 respectively.
In the first two rounds of the election, the candidate who achieves an absolute majority is elected.
The result of the election is often determined by party politics.
The office of president is open to all Germans who are entitled to vote in Bundestag elections and have reached the age of 40, but no one may serve more than two consecutive five-year terms.
On taking office the president must take the following oath, stipulated by Article 56 of the Basic Law, in a joint session of the Bundestag and the Bundesrat (it is the only event that demands such a joint session constitutionally). They are permitted to omit the religious references if so desired.
As German constitutional law does not consider oaths of office as constitutive but only as affirmative, the president does not have to take the oath at the moment of entering office in order to be able to execute the powers of the office. The oath is usually administered during the first weeks of a president's term on a date convenient for a joint session of the Bundestag and the Bundesrat. Nevertheless, a president persistently refusing to take the oath could face an impeachment. If a president is re-elected for a second term, they do not take the oath again.
Duties and functions
The President is involved in the formation of the Federal Government and remains in close cooperation with it.
Therefore, the president also receives the chancellor regularly for talks on current policy issues.
The president's most prominent powers and duties include:
- Proposing the Chancellor to the Bundestag.
- Appointing and dismissing the chancellor and their cabinet ministers
- Dissolving the Bundestag under certain circumstances
- Declaring the legislative state of emergency under certain circumstances
- Convening the Bundestag
- Signing and promulgating laws or vetoing them under certain circumstances
- Appointing and dismissing federal judges, federal civil servants, and commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the Armed Forces
- Exercising the power to pardon individual offenders on behalf of the Federation
- Awarding honors on behalf of the Federation
- Representing Germany at home and abroad
After the constitution of every new elected Bundestag, which automatically ends the term of the chancellor, and in every other case in which the office of chancellor has fallen vacant (death or resignation), the president proposes an individual as chancellor and must then, provided they are subsequently elected by a majority of all members of the current Bundestag (the so-called Chancellor-majority) on the first ballot, appoint them to the office. However, the Bundestag is free to disregard the president's proposal (which has, as of 2019, never happened), in which case the parliament must within 14 days elect another individual, whom the parties in the Bundestag can now propose themselves, to the post with the same so-called Chancellor-majority, whom the president is then obliged to appoint. If the Bundestag does not manage to do so, on the 15th day after the first ballot the Bundestag must hold one last ballot: if an individual is elected with the Chancellor-majority, the president is obliged to appoint them. If not, the president can either appoint as chancellor the individual who received a plurality of votes on this last ballot or dissolves the Bundestag. The president can dismiss the chancellor, but only if the Bundestag passes a constructive vote of no confidence, electing a new chancellor with the Chancellor-majority at the same time.%20%28]]If this occurs, the president must dismiss the chancellor and appoint the successor elected by the Bundestag.
The president appoints and dismisses the remaining members of the Federal Government upon the proposal of the chancellor. This means that the president can appoint only candidates presented by the chancellor. It is unclear, whether the President can refuse to dismiss or appoint a Federal Minister proposed by the Chancellor, as no President has ever done so.
In practice, the president only proposes a person as chancellor who has previously garnered a majority support in coalition talks and traditionally does not interfere in those talks.
The president appoints federal judges, federal civil servants, and military officers.
In the event that the Bundestag elects an individual for the office of chancellor by a plurality of votes, rather than a majority, on the 15th day of the election process, the president can, at their discretion, either appoint that individual as chancellor or dissolve the Bundestag, triggering a new election.
All federal laws must be signed by the president before they can come into effect. The president may refuse to sign the law, thus effectively vetoing it. In principle, the president has the full veto authority on any bill, but this, however, is not how past presidents handled their power. Usually, the president checks, if the law was passed according to the order mandated by the Constitution and/or if the content of the law is constitutional. Only in cases, in which the incumbent president had serious doubts about the constitutionality of a bill laid before him, he has refused to sign it. As yet (2019), this has happened only eight times and no president has done it more often than two times during his term:
- in 1951 Theodor Heuss vetoed a bill concerning income and corporation taxes, because it lacked the consent of the Bundesrat (in Germany some bills at the federal level need the consent of the Bundesrat, and some do not, which can be controversial at times).
- in 1961 Heinrich Lübke refused to sign a bill concerning business and workforce trades he believed to be unconstitutional, because of a violation of the free choice of job.
- in 1969 Gustav Heinemann vetoed the "Engineer Act", because he believed this legislative area to be under the authority of the states.
- in 1970 Gustav Heinemann refused to sign the "Architects Act" for the same reason.
- in 1976 Walter Scheel vetoed a bill about simplification measures regarding the conscientious objection of conscription, because it lacked the - in his opinion necessary - consent of the Bundesrat.
- in 1991 Richard von Weizsäcker refused to sign an amendment to the "Air Traffic Act" allowing the privatization of the air traffic administration, which he believed to be unconstitutional. He signed the bill later after the "Basic Law" was changed in this aspect.
- in 2006 Horst Köhler vetoed a bill concerning flight control, because he believed it to be unconstitutional.
- later the same year Horst Köhler vetoed the "Consumer Information Act" for the same reason.
The president represents Germany in the world (Art.
According to Article 60 (2) of the German Constitution, the president has the power to pardon.
It is customary that the federal president becomes the honorary godfather of the seventh child in a family if the parents wish it.
Article 81 makes it possible to enact a law without the approval of the Bundestag: if the Bundestag rejects a motion of confidence, but a new chancellor is not elected nor is the Bundestag dissolved, the chancellor can declare a draft law to be "urgent".
After the declaration of the president, the Bundestag has four weeks to discuss the draft law.
There are some constraints on the "legislative state of emergency".
Also, the emergency has to be declared afresh for every proposal.
A "legislative state of emergency" has never been declared.
Politics and influence
Though candidates are usually selected by a political party or parties, the president nonetheless is traditionally expected to refrain from being an active member of any party after assuming office.
According to article 81 of the German constitution, the president can declare a "Legislation Emergency" and allow the federal government and the Bundesrat to enact laws without the approval of the Bundestag. He also has important decisive power regarding the appointment of a chancellor who was elected by plurality only, or the dissolution of the Bundestag under certain circumstances.
It is also theoretically possible, albeit a drastic step which has not happened since 1949, that the president refuses to sign legislation merely because he disagrees with its content, thus vetoing it, or refuse to approve a cabinet appointment. In all cases in which a bill was not signed by the federal president, all presidents have claimed that the bill in question was manifestly unconstitutional.
The Basic Law did not create an office of Vice President, but designated the President of the Bundesrat (by constitutional custom the head of government of one of the sixteen German states, elected by the Bundesrat in a predetermined order of annual alternation) as deputy of the President of Germany (Basic Law, Article 57). If the office of president falls vacant, they temporarily assume the powers of the president and acts as head of state until a successor is elected, but does not assume the office of president as such (which would be unconstitutional, as no member of a legislature or government at federal or state level can be president at the same time). While doing so, they do not continue to exercise the role of chair of the Bundesrat. If the president is temporarily unable to perform his duties (this happens frequently, for example if the president is abroad on a state visit), he can at his own discretion delegate his powers or parts of them to the President of the Bundesrat.
If the president dies, resigns or is otherwise removed from office, a successor is to be elected within thirty days.
None of these three presidents of the Bundesrat acting as head of state, has used any of the more important powers of the president, as for example vetoing a law or dissolving the Bundestag, although they would have been entitled to do so under the same conditions as the president.
Impeachment and removal
While in office, the president enjoys immunity from prosecution and cannot be voted out of office or recalled.
Presidential office and symbols
The Office of the President (Bundespräsidialamt) is a supreme federal authority. It organizes the president's work, supports the president in the performance of his duties as Head of State and coordinates his working relationships with other parts of the German government and administration. Its top official, who takes precedence over all other German state secretaries, is the Head of the Office of the President (Chef des Bundespräsidialamts). The office and its staff advise the president, informs them of all developments in domestic and foreign affairs and carries out the instructions of the president or forwards these to the corresponding ministry or authority.
The president's car is usually black, made in Germany and has the numberplate "0 – 1" with the presidential standard on the right wing of the car.
The standard of the President of Germany was adopted on 11 April 1921, and used in this design until 1933.
The Weimar-era presidential standard from 1921 was adopted again as presidential standard by a decision by President Theodor Heuss on 20 January 1950, when he also formally adopted other Weimar-era state symbols including the coat of arms. The eagle (Reichsadler, now called Bundesadler) in the design that was used in the coat of arms and presidential standard in the Weimar Republic and today was originally introduced by a decision by President Friedrich Ebert on 11 November 1919.
The modern-day position of German president is significantly different from the Reich President of the Weimar Republic – a position which held considerable power and was regarded as an important figure in political life.
The position of President of Germany was first established by the Weimar Constitution, which was drafted in the aftermath of World War I and the abdication of Emperor Wilhelm II in 1918. In Germany the new head of state was called the Reichspräsident.
Friedrich Ebert (SPD) served as Germany's first president, followed by Paul von Hindenburg. The office effectively came to an end upon Hindenburg's death in 1934 and its powers merged with those of chancellor. Adolf Hitler now ruled Germany as "Führer und Reichskanzler", combining his previous positions in party and government. However, he did officially become President; the office was not abolished (though the constitutionally mandated presidential elections every seven years did not take place in the Nazi era) and briefly revived at the end of the Second World War when Hitler appointed Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz as his successor as "President of Germany". Dönitz agreed to the surrender to the Allies and was arrested a few days later.
The Weimar Constitution created a semi-presidential system in which power was divided between the president, a cabinet and a parliament. The president enjoyed far greater power than the current president and had an active political role, rather than a largely ceremonial one. The influence of the president also increased greatly as a result of the instability of the Weimar period. The president had authority to appoint the chancellor and could dismiss the entire cabinet at any time. However, it was also necessary for the cabinet to enjoy the confidence of the Reichstag (parliament) because it could be removed by a vote of no confidence. All bills had to receive the signature of the president to become law and, although he did not have an absolute veto on legislation, he could insist that a law be submitted for the approval of voters in a referendum. The president also had authority to dissolve the Reichstag, conduct foreign affairs, and command the armed forces. Article 48 of the constitution also provided the president sweeping powers in the event of a crisis. If there was a threat to "public order and security" he could legislate by decree and suspend civil rights.
The Weimar constitution provided that the president be directly elected and serve a seven-year term.
The system created by the Weimar constitution led to a number of problems.
Socialist East Germany established the office of a head of state with the title of President of the Republic (German: Präsident der Republik) in 1949, but abandoned the office with the death of the first president, Wilhelm Pieck, in 1960 in favour of a collective head of state. All government positions of the East German socialist republic, including the presidency, were appointed by the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany.
With the promulgation of the Grundgesetz in 1949, the office of President of the Federal Republic (in German: Bundespräsident) was created in West Germany. Partly due to the misuse of presidential powers in the Weimar Republic, the office's powers were significantly reduced. Not only is he indirectly elected, but most of the real power was transferred to the chancellor.
Because the reunification of Germany in 1990 was accomplished by the five East German states joining the Federal Republic, the president became the president of all German states without the establishment of a new presidential office.
List of presidents
Twelve persons have served as President of the Federal Republic of Germany.
The president is (according to Art. 57 GG) deputised by the President of the Bundesrat who can perform any of the president's duties, if the president is temporarily unable to do so and delegates these duties to them (this frequently happens during state visits), or if the Presidency falls vacant, in which case he becomes acting head of state (not "(acting) President") until a successor is elected, which has to happen within thirty days. This has happened three times:
- in 1949 Karl Arnold acted as head of state after the Grundgesetz came into effect on 7 September 1949 and before Theodor Heuss was elected by the 1st Federal Convention on 12 September 1949.
- in 2010 Jens Böhrnsen acted as head of state after the resignation of Horst Köhler and before the election of Christian Wulff.
- in 2012 Horst Seehofer acted as head of state after the resignation of Christian Wulff and before the election of Joachim Gauck.
Living former Presidents
In Germany, former presidents are usually referred to as Altbundespräsidenten (President emeritus). There are three living former German presidents: