On October 3, 1990, the states of the German Democratic Republic (East
Germany) shed their last ties to their Soviet created structure and joined the
Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). The 23rd article of West Germany\'s
1949 constitution, the Basic Law, had been drafted specifically to allow for
such an arrival from the East. But as the 1980s drew to a close, few Germans on
either side of the border expected it to be used in their lifetime. Yet, in less
than a year the beginning of an upsurge of popular protest came together against
the communist regime in East Germany and the formal unification of Germany on
West German terms.
At a simple level, the constitution may be seen as a representation of
the traditional German desire for clarity and order, applied to the rights and
duties of the individual. It can also be described as a way of ensuring that the
events of the 1930s, particularly the rise of facism and dictatorship, will
never recur.
As a result of historical roots in West Germany and past abuses by
central government, Germany is a federation. The powers of the states cannot be
reduced. Each of the federal states and Berlin has its own constitution, a
democratically elected Parliament, a government, administrative agencies and
independant courts. However, states are binding to the federal constitution, the
federal constitution is binding upon the states and the federal parliament is
responsible for major legislation and policy. The state parliaments main
responsibility is in two major policy areas: education, and law and order.
Administration of federal legislation is mainly the responsibility of the states,
allowing for greater consideration of local needs and issues. This system of
government ia also intended to bring government closer to the people. In many
cases, state powers are delegated further to local authorities.
A further area of responsibility for the states arives from the
parliamentary structure. The legislative body is the Bundestag, but the
Bundesrat (anupper house representing )the states must approve most legislation.
Each state has between three and five votes in the Bundesrat, depending
on the size of its population. Members of the Bundesrat are appointed by the
state governments for their duration within the state government. Since state
elections are held continually during the term of federal parliament, the
members of the upper house may alter during the life of a federal government.
The approval of the Bundesrat is required for certain types of legislation,
Particularly the budget and those affecting the states. Differences are usually
overcome by a joint committee from the two houses.
The lower house, or the Bundestag, consists of a minimum of 656 deputies.
The Bundestag has a speaker, or president, usually elected from among the
largest parliamentary group. It has three main tasks: to act as the legislative
body, to elect the federal chancellor, and to control government activity. Any
changes to the Basic Law requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of
parliament. Thus the opposition parties can prevent amendments to the
constitution through their representation in either the Bundestag or Bundesrat.
The electoral system, finalized in 1956, is designed to both provide a
government representing the wishes of the people and proportional
representation. Candidates are elected by a majority vote in 328 constituencies
of roughly equal size. Each state is allocated a quota of MPs for each party,
derived from the second, or party vote. The difference between these numbers and
the numbers of directly elected representatives is then made up from party lists.
A party can win more seats on the directly elected segment of the vote than the
number given by the party list results, in which event the size of the lower
house is enlarged. This provision was used in 1990, with the addition of six
To prevent fragmentation, a party must secure either three direct
mandates or 5% of the total vote to be represented in parliament. This results
in a barrier to the development of new parties, which must fullfill the 5%
criteria without the help of representation in parliament. Also, when the
practice of vacancies exist in parliament the positions are filled from the
party list of the previous election rather than by a by-election, hampering new
or small party formation. In the 1990 elections the small, and largely new, East
German parties were allowed, for on time only, to form umbrella groups, side-
stepping this constraint.
However, state elections occur almost always once a year allowing
parties to try and gain representation in a state parliament, often by
concentrating their efforts.
The lower house is elected for a fixed term of four years and early