The Reichstag, home of the German federal parliament



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Local government in Germany
shaped by regional differences

By Gregor Gosciniak and Andrew Stevens

12 September 2006: Germany is a federal parliamentary democracy, made up of 16 states. Within the federal system an array of different state and local government systems exist. Largely for historical reasons, there is no common system across Germany.

| President | Federal parliament | Upper house | Federal government | Political parties | States | Local government |

President
The head of the Federal Republic of Germany is the President (Bundespräsident) – currently Horst Köhler, elected in 2004 - though his post is largely ceremonial. The President represents the whole of Germany and does not have the power to make political decisions. The German President is elected for five years by the Bundesversammlung, the special federal assembly convened of members of the federal parliament (Bundestag) and an equal number of representatives from the German states.

Parliament (lower house)
The German parliament (Bundestag) is based in the German capital Berlin. The Bundestag sits in the Reichtstag building which was built at the end of the 19th century during the imperial era. The name Reichstag itself means Empire Diet. The politicians represented in the Bundestag are the members of parliament. Correctly they are denoted Mitglieder des Bundestages (MdB). The parliament consists of elected members - Germany’s electoral system is a mixture of majority voting and proportional representation known as the Additional Member System (AMS). Half of the seats in parliament are to elected by direct voting by the citizens, the other half are given by lists of candidates drawn up by the political parties in the 16 federal states.

Parliament (upper house)
The German upper house, the Bundesrat, is the federal body in which the sixteen Länder governments are directly represented. Members of the Bundesrat are not elected by the public but are appointed by their respective state governments.

Members tend to be state ministers. The Bundesrat has 69 members. Länder with more than seven million inhabitants have six seats (Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria, Lower Saxony, and the state with most citizens, North Rhine-Westphalia). Hesse, with a population of just over six million, has five seats in the Bundesrat. The Länder with populations of between 2 million and 7 million have four seats each (Berlin, Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Schleswig-Holstein, and Thuringia).

The least populous states, those with fewer than 2 million inhabitants, receive three seats each (Bremen, Hamburg, and the Saarland). This system of representation, although designed to reflect the size of the states, affords greater representation per inhabitant to the smaller states. The presidency of the Bundesrat rotates annually among the Länder. By law, each Land delegation is required to vote as a bloc in accordance with the instructions of its government. Most German laws can only be changed if the mayority of the Bundesrat agrees. So even if a law passes the lower chamber, Bundestag, it can be blocked in the upper chamber.

Government
The leader of the German government is the Federal Chancellor. Angela Merkel, elected in 2005, is the first female head of government in German history. The Chancellor and her ministers form the cabinet, which forms government. By law the Chancellor defines the guidelines for the government’s policies. The ministers represent their own areas of responsibility independently within these guidelines. To elect the Chancellor, a majority vote of members of parliament is needed.

Political parties
Political parties are a fundamental part of the German and are specifically mentioned in the constitution. They are formed by groups of citizens who wish to get influence on German politics and act as representatives of the people in the Bundestag, state parliaments (Landestage) and in local parliaments. They must prove that they will adhere to the democratic principles of the German state. At the moment the German parliament consists of members of the following parties: CDU/CSU (conservative), SPD (social democrats), Bündnis90/Die Grünen (Green Party), FDP (liberals) and PDS (democratic socialists). The federal election takes place every four years. The elected Bundestag is the highest legislative organ in Germany. All federal legislation comes from the Bundestag.

States
Germany is a federal parliamentary democracy, made up of 16 federal states (Länder), this having increased with the 1990 unification of East and West Germany with the demise of the former German Democratic Republic (DDR) in 1989. The Länder are Northrhine Westphalia, Bavaria; Saxony, Baden-Württemberg, Hessen, Schleswig-Holstein, Sachsen-Anhalt, Lower Saxony, Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Rheinland Pfalz Saarland, and Thuringia, and the city-states Hamburg, Berlin and Bremen.

Each Land elects a regional parliament, or Landtag, for a four year term and this in turn appoints an administration (Landsregierung) headed by a minister-president (Ministerpräsident). The Länder are responsible for areas such as culture, education, environment and policing, with a number of shared responsibilities with the federal government over legal and penal issues.

In general, administration in Germany in most cases is the responsibility of the Länder, which implement Länder laws at Länder level, and they implement federal laws as an administration on behalf of the Federation or in their own responsibility. In the fields of public order and security, science and culture, education, professional training the Länder are responsible for creating legislation and for the administration another important duty of the Länder is regional governmental planning in order to creating equal living conditions for the citizens in the Länder.

Another important objective of regional governmental planning is the protection and conservation of the environment. Despite the variances within the German system across the Länder, there are some common features among local governments.

Local government
In all but one of the 16 Länder, the council system exists whereby each local government, in the form of the municipal council, is generally elected on a five year term, though this can vary between four and six years.

Each council is headed by an elected mayor, known as the Bürgermeister, who acts as head of both the council and the administration. The mandate can vary from four to nine years. In the Land of Hessen however, the magistrat system is used, whereby the mayor presides over magistrates appointed by the council to act as the administration. Common responsibilities of this tier include planning, water management, social welfare and the building and maintenance of schools. Some councils also engage in cultural, economic development and energy-related activities, depending on the Land.

There are around 14,000 municipalities in the 16 Lander. Above the local tier and beneath the Lander, a tier of 300 units of local administration known as Kreise (districts) also exists. These are overseen by a district council, with a mandate varying between one and four years, again according to the Land. Aside from the legislative function of its council, the administration (Landratsamt) is headed by a district president (Landrat), who is either appointed by the council or directly elected for a five to eight year term. This tier engages in the construction and maintenance of roads, some aspects of social welfare and waste management, though some are also able to engage in tourism promotion, libraries and higher education.

Cities represent the lowest level within the three administrative levels (federal, state, city) in Germany. The Federation and the Länder put certain tasks to the municipalities – they are also supposed to allocate the corresponding funding with it which, in reality, is not always the case. Within the framework of self-administration, the cities organise and administrate their own voluntary activities which they also have to pay for from the cities own budgets.

The cities’ own activities are part of the city’s so-called own circle of responsibility. These may be voluntary or they may be prescribed by the state as obligatory. In such cases, the state does not interfere in the implementation of such activities nor does it issue instructions. Also the cities have to take care of additional tasks which have been allocated to them by the state. These tasks are part of the so called circle of allocated responsibilities in which the state uses municipal institutions and organises the implementation of allocated responsibilities by instructions.

Voluntary activities are fulfilled by the municipality and the municipality itself decides how these are handled. Another field of activity are the obligatory areas which are not directed from above, like water, waste disposal, energy supply and such. The municipality is free to handle activities in these fields on their own or elect to outsource them to private businesses, which has become a common practice during recent years. The so-called activities commissioned by the Land are carried out by the municipal administration in its area, as the lowest official body in the federal system. These include the organisation of elections, the registration for the military and others.






Cologne City Hall and the glass pyramide housing a Mikwe, a Jewish ritual bath


Summary of local government in Germany
Districts (300)
District councils are directly elected for terms varying between one and four years. The district president is either directly elected or elected by the assembly for a term of five to eight years. Compulsory competences: Construction and maintenance of roads; Youth and social services; Collection and disposal of household waste.

Villages, towns and cities (14,000)
With the exception of Hessen, all German states operate a council system. A magistrate system is in place in Hessen.

Councils are directly elected, generally for terms of five years. Mayors are also directly elected. Their terms can vary from four to nine years. The mayor presides over the local council and also heads the administration. The council legislates and also has supervisory functions.

Under the magistrate system, as operated in the state of Hessen, the executive body is made up of the mayor and his deputies, called magistrates. The mayor is directly elected, while the magistrates are civil servants, appointed, usually for four years, by the elected council. The mayor and the magistrates represent the community and are responsible for all administrative matters. Together they implement the elected council’s political decisions. (Information supplied by the Council for European Municipalities and Regions, CEMR)