The Question of Presidential Power in Germany’s Parliamentary System

Another student guest blog on Germany, this one describing their parliamentary system.

Gauck and Merkel (photo originally from

Germany is a parliamentary system (for more information on what this means, check out this blog).  Many mistake Germany for a semi-presidential system because Germany has a president; however the president holds very little political power and is not directly elected. His role is largely ceremonial while the real power lies with the head of government, who is currently Chancellor Angela Merkel. The chancellor forms the federal cabinet, holds supreme command over the armed forces in times of crisis, and has to form and implement policy.

The president is the head of state and this office is newly occupied by Joachim Gauck. Gauck was elected by the federal convention that consists of the members of the Bundestag and an equal number of members elected by parliaments of the various Länder (for more details on this process click here). Gauck succeeds Christian Wulff, who resigned in February amidst allegations of corruption for acts he committed while premier of Lower Saxony. It is puzzling as to why the German government and citizens reacted so strongly to these allegations, especially given the ceremonial nature of the position. Let’s take a closer look at the role of the president to try and see why the scandal sparked such outrage.

The role of the president is outlined in the Basic Law of Germany under chapter five, articles 54-61. In sum, the president proposes a person for the election as Federal chancellor, appoints and dismisses federal judges, and has the power to grant pardons andpromulgate laws. It is clear that the president does not have any legislative or high degree of political power and there is good reason for this.  After World War II, Germany reformed the role of this office, as its legacy of strong handed leadership had enabled Hitler to come to power.  Although much of the political power of the president was stripped away, there is still a very important role for the president to fill.  The president is supposed to be Germany’s compass for intellect and morals, to strengthen the electorate’s faith in democratic institutions, and to provide the cement that holds society together.  One source even said that the president’s position embodies the conscience of the nation. That’s no small task! When one examines the role of the president in this light, it is clear as to why Christian Wulff could not remain in office. He was not fulfilling his role as a moral leader. Germany has hit a rough patch when it comes to presidents, as the president before Wulff, Horst Köhler, resigned early from office as well. He resigned after making controversial remarks about Germany’s role in Afghanistan; however even prior to this he was criticized for remaining silent during the financial crisis at a time when German citizens desperately needed reassurance.

What has Germany done to try and recover from Wulff’s scandal and to end the string of bad presidents? Firstly, the controversy surrounding Wulff has prompted prominent organizations like Amensty International to investigate political sponsorship rules and has incited demands for more transparency.  The German government is now realizing that the ties between politicians, journalists, and businesspeople must be cut so that Germany can maintain a clean record against corruption. Secondly, it has led to the careful selection of Joachim Gauck as the new president. He is known for his anti-Communist activism under the East German government, leadership of an organization called Against Forgetting that aims to ensure that the holocaust and oppression under the East German government is not forgotten, and general charisma. There are very high expectations for Gauck, including improving Germany’s image abroad and filling the vaccum that Köhler and Wulff created, but given his strong background Germans are hopeful. Clearly, Germans view the role of the presidency as an important symbol of national identity and therefore require a president who embodies the aspects of German society which Germans would most like to project to themselves and abroad.


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