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Frequently asked questions about forming a government

CDU/CSU and SPD have signed a coalition agreement. What is the deadline for forming a new government – and how is a new government formed? What is the role of the Federal President in forming a government? Here we answer some of the most frequently asked questions.

The German Basic law or constitution Germany's Basic Law or constitution lays out how a new government is formed Photo: Bundesregierung/Stutterheim

What has happened since the general election?

In the wake of the general election on 24 September 2017 the CDU/CSU, FDP and the Green party initially held exploratory talks. After these talks broke down, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke to the leaders of all parties involved in the exploratory talks and with those parties "where overlaps in the party programmes do not entirely preclude the possibility of forming a government".

On 7 December a large majority of the delegates at the SPD congress voted in favour of entering into open talks with the CDU/CSU about the possibility of forming a government, with no predetermined outcome. Exploratory talks between the SPD and the CDU/CSU were held from 7 to 12 January. On 21 January, the SPD congress decided to engage in coalition negotiations with the CDU. These negotiations started on January 26 and were completed on 7 February. The parties involved must still approve the coalition agreement. The SPD will make its approval dependent on a poll of all of its members.

At a ceremony in the German Bundestag’s Paul Löbe House, the heads of the CDU, CSU and SPD, along with the heads of the parliamentary groups in the German Bundestag, signed the coalition agreement on 12 March 2018.

What are exploratory talks?

Exploratory talks could also be called preliminary negotiations. The parties involved explore which compromises are feasible and whether or not there is any point in engaging in genuine coalition negotiations. New and complex government constellations are always subjected to particularly thorough preliminary negotiations.

Why are there no reports about coalition negotiations on www.bundesregierung.de?

On the website www.bundesregierung.de we, the Federal Press Office, report only on the actions of the entire German government, which consists of the Chancellor and the Cabinet ministers. This must be seen as distinct from the actions of the political parties.

Within the scope of exploratory talks and coalition negotiations, however, only the representatives of the individual political parties are in action. Coalition agreements are concluded by the party leaders.

What course do coalition negotiations take?

After the exploratory talks come the actual coalition negotiations. The coalition partners are the political parties that will form the government. Generally, specialists at working level prepare papers. The ultimate aim is for the party leaders to conclude a coalition agreement.

What does a coalition agreement regulate?

A coalition agreement is always concluded for the duration of one parliament. It lays out the cornerstones and guiding principles of the coalition. It can also stipulate individual sector-specific decisions or lay out in detail specific bills to be introduced.

In addition the coalition agreement lays out who is to head each federal ministry. And finally, the coalition partners undertake to cooperate within the Cabinet and in parliament.

What happens until a new government is formed?

The outgoing German government remains in office as an acting government until a new government is formed.

What is an "acting government" – and what authority does it have?

To ensure that there is no phase without a government following a general election, the Basic Law contains a pertinent provision for an acting government to be put in place (Article 69 (3) of the German Basic Law). This is particularly relevant when there is a delay in forming a new government, for instance when coalition negotiations are protracted.

Thirty days after the general election, a constituent session of the German Bundestag must be held. That is laid down in the Basic Law. The period of office of the Cabinet members of the outgoing government ends when the new Bundestag sits for the first time.

In line with long-standing practice, the Federal President writes to the outgoing Chancellor before the Bundestag meets for its constituent session, and asks him or her to continue in office as acting Chancellor pursuant to Article 69 (3) of the Basic Law. The Chancellor then asks all Cabinet ministers likewise to remain in office as acting ministers, also before the new Bundestag sits for the first time.

An acting government has all the authority of a "regular" government. It has, however, been practice hitherto for an acting government to refrain from making any decisions that would bind the following government, such as adopting new legislation.

Since it is parliament that holds budgetary powers, the acting government cannot pass a "regular budget". The provisional nature of the budgetary process places serious restrictions on an acting government.

How is the government formed?

The German Basic Law, or constitution, provides for a number of options for the election of a new Chancellor and the forming of a government. They are laid out in Article 63 of the Basic Law.

The Federal President proposes a candidate for the office of Chancellor to the German Bundestag (the lower house of the German parliament).

For the successful election of a Chancellor, the absolute majority of members of the German Bundestag must vote for the candidate in the first round of voting. In other words precisely half the members of the German Bundestag plus one must vote for the candidate. This is sometimes called the "Chancellor majority".

If the proposed candidate is not elected in the first round of voting with an absolute majority, the majority of members of the German Bundestag may elect another candidate within fourteen days. There is no limit on the number of votes that may be held. Again, however, the absolute majority of the Bundestag members must vote for the candidate (Article 63 (3) German Basic Law).

Should no candidate receive a majority of the votes of the Bundestag during this phase either, a final vote will be held without delay. At this stage the candidate who receives most votes (a simple majority of the votes) will be elected.

If the Chancellor is elected with an absolute majority of the votes of the German Bundestag, i.e. by a majority of the members of the Bundestag, the Federal President must appoint him or her within seven days of the vote.

Should the elected candidate attract only a simple majority (i.e. the most votes), the Federal President must either appoint him or her Chancellor within seven days of the vote or dissolve the German Bundestag (Article 63 (4) of the German Basic Law). If the Federal President dissolves the German Bundestag, new elections must be held within 60 days (Article 39 (1), last sentence, German Basic Law).

What role does the Federal President play in forming a government?

The Federal President has proposed to the German Bundestag that Angela Merkel be elected Chancellor pursuant to Article 63 (3) of the German Basic Law or constitution. The German Bundestag will decide when the vote will be held.

If Ms Merkel is elected by the majority of the members of the German Bundestag, the Federal President will appoint her as Chancellor.

Should she receive only the most votes (simple majority) but not the absolute majority of the votes in the final round of voting in the German Bundestag, the Federal President must decide either to appoint her Chancellor, head of a minority government, or to dissolve the Bundestag. Should the Federal President decide to dissolve the Bundestag, new elections must be held within 60 days.

Following the collapse of the exploratory talks between CDU/CSU, FDP and the Green party, the Federal President played a particularly important role. Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on all the parties to try again to form a government. He then held talks with the leaders of all parties involved in the exploratory talks and with parties "where overlaps in the party programmes do not entirely preclude the possibility of forming a government".

What is the deadline for forming a new government?

The Basic Law does not lay down a fixed deadline for the election of a Chancellor and thus for the forming of a government.

The outgoing government remains in office as acting government until it is replaced by a new government.

What is discontinuity?

The principle of discontinuity covers all draft legislation in the Bundestag pipeline at the time of a parliamentary election. This means that all draft legislation introduced into the outgoing Bundestag is deemed to be finished business at the end of that legislative period. The principle of discontinuity does not apply to the second chamber of the German parliament, the Bundesrat.

Legislation already passed by the outgoing Bundestag will of course remain on the statute books.

Mar 12, 2018