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The President in German Government and Politics

The Basic Law creates a dual executive but grants most executive authority to the federal chancellor, as head of government, rather than to the president, who acts as head of state. The presidency is primarily a ceremonial post, and its occupant represents the Federal Republic in international relations. In that sphere, the president's duties include signing treaties, representing Germany abroad, and receiving foreign dignitaries. In the domestic sphere, the president has largely ceremonial functions. Although this official signs legislation into law, grants pardons, and appoints federal judges, federal civil servants, and military officers, each of these actions requires the countersignature of the chancellor or the relevant cabinet minister.

The president formally proposes to the Bundestag a chancellor candidate and formally appoints the chancellor's cabinet members, but the president follows the choice of the Bundestag in the first case and of the chancellor in the second. If the government loses a simple no-confidence vote, the president dissolves the Bundestag, but here, too, the Basic Law limits the president's ability to act independently. In the event of a national crisis, the emergency law reforms of 1968 designate the president as a mediator who can declare a state of emergency.

There is disagreement about whether the president, in fact, has greater powers than the above description would suggest. Some argue that nothing in the Basic Law suggests that a president must follow government directives. For instance, the president could refuse to sign legislation, thus vetoing it, or refuse to approve certain cabinet appointments. As of mid-1995, no president had ever taken such action, and thus the constitutionality of these points had never been tested.

The president is selected by secret ballot at a Federal Convention that includes all Bundestag members and an equal number of delegates chosen by the Land legislatures. This assemblage, which totals more than 1,000 people, is convened every five years. It may select a president for a second, but not a third, five-year term. The authors of the Basic Law preferred this indirect form of presidential election because they believed it would produce a head of state who was widely acceptable and insulated from popular pressure. Candidates for the presidency must be at least forty years old.

The Basic Law did not create an office of vice president. If the president is outside the country or if the position is vacant, the president of the Bundesrat fills in as the temporary head of state. If the president dies in office, a successor is elected within thirty days.

Usually one of the senior leaders of the largest party in the Bundestag, the president nonetheless is expected to be nonpartisan after assuming office. For example, President Richard von Weizsaecker, whose second term expired in June 1994, was the former Christian Democratic mayor of Berlin. Upon becoming president in 1984, he resigned from his party positions. Weizsaecker played a prominent role in urging Germans to come to terms with their actions during the Third Reich and in calling for greater tolerance toward foreigners in Germany as right-wing violence escalated in the early 1990s. Although the formal powers of the president are limited, the president's role can be quite significant depending on his or her own activities. Between 1949 and 1994, the Christian Democratic Union (Christlich Demokratische Union--CDU) held the office for twenty-five years, the Free Democratic Party (Freie Demokratische Partei--FDP) for fifteen, and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands--SPD) for five.

Elected by the Federal Convention in May 1994, Roman Herzog succeeded Weizsäcker as President on July 1, 1994. Previously president of the Federal Constitutional Court in Karls-ruhe, Germany's highest court, he was nominated for the presidency by the CDU and its sister party, the Christian Social Union (Christlich-Soziale Union--CSU).

Presidents of the Federal Republic of Germany, 1949-

President Years in Office Former Party Affiliation
Theodor Heuss 1949-59 FDP
Heinrich Lübke 1959-69 CDU
Gustav Heinemann 1969-74 SPD
Walter Scheel 1974-79 FDP
Karl Carstens 1979-84 CDU
Richard von Weizsäcker 1984-94 CDU
Roman Herzog 1994- CDU

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