Nominal and actual power in the parlimentary system

When the United States or even France elect a president it is big news.  The election of the German president not so much.

That is, of course, because, at least in normal times, the German president doesn’t hold significant power. He has ceremonial precedence and signs lots of important stuff, but the real power is with the chancellor. So before I talk about electing presidents I probably should talk about electing chancellors. As it says in the Basic Law[1]:

Article 63
(1) The Federal Chancellor shall be elected by the Bundestag without debate on the proposal of the Federal President.
(2) The person who receives the votes of a majority of the Members of the Bundestag shall be elected. The person elected shall be appointed by the Federal President.
(3) If the person proposed by the Federal President is not elected, the Bundestag may elect a Federal Chancellor within fourteen days after the ballot by the votes of more than one half of its Members.
(4) If no Federal Chancellor is elected within this period, a new election shall take place without delay, in which the person who receives the largest number of votes shall be elected. If the person elected receives the votes of a majority of the Members of the Bundestag, the Federal President must appoint him within seven days after the election. If the person elected does not receive such a majority, then within seven days the Federal President shall either appoint him or dissolve the Bundestag.


Article 67
(1) The Bundestag may express its lack of confidence in the Federal Chancellor only by electing a successor by the vote of a majority of its Members and requesting the Federal President to dismiss the Federal Chancellor. The Federal President must comply with the request and appoint the person elected.
(2) Forty-eight hours shall elapse between the motion and the election.

Article 68
(1) If a motion of the Federal Chancellor for a vote of confidence is not supported by the majority of the Members of the Bundestag, the Federal President, upon the proposal of the Federal Chancellor, may dissolve the Bundestag within twenty-one days. The right of dissolution shall lapse as soon as the Bundestag elects another Federal Chancellor by the vote of a majority of its Members.
(2) Forty-eight hours shall elapse between the motion and the vote.

The Bundestag is, of course, our federal parliament. So it’s a slightly modified parliamentary system. If there is a clear majority in parliament it can always install its candidate as chancellor and the president must sign on the dotted line, like it or not. That’s true even if a new majority arises by members changing sides. If no such majority exists the president has some reserve powers.

This is, of course, radically different from the American system, which puts much more stock in the separation of powers. Of course a parliamentary system, too, has a separation of powers, but its effect is weakened.  With the executive power being a removable creature of the legislative power, those powers can’t normally be in conflict. The system is designed to avoid divided government. In addition to being dismissable, the government (parliamentary system speak for cabinet) is also weaker than it would be in a presidential system.  There is, for example, no veto power. Also, members of the government must justify themselves in parliament upon request.

In theory, this sounds like most of the power that would be with the executive department in a presidential system is vested in parliament. If this was how it worked in practice I would like it, because I think power should be spread on as many shoulders as possible. And indeed most Germans do like it and find the vast powers of the American president pretty scary.

But in practice I think it works almost the other way around. A system where the executive department depends on a permanent majority in parliament not so surprisingly tends to produce a permanent majority in parliament.  In fact, if it doesn’t, that is a crisis warranting the use of the president’s slightly scary reserve powers. That, in turn, means party-line votes on everything. Voting against the party line on anything is rare enough to be news-worthy. Back-benchers will toe the party line if they ever again want to run on their party’s ticket. And that kind of control is necessitated by the system, because separating proposals from the people proposing them is impossible by design. Effectively, this turns parliament into a ceremonial body ratifying whatever the leaders of the governing coalition have already decided.

The system still has some checks and balances. Chancellors must give some consideration their power base, because if the Muppets feel they have a better chance of  reelection without their leader they can install a new one without bothering with a general election. And some laws get held up by the states’ participating in legislation through the Bundestag, something I’ll talk about in a separate post on federalism. But Government changes are very rare and the Bundesrat can mostly be dealt with by also involving opposition leaders. So even amendments to the constitution can easily be brokered in backroom deals. By the time the general public hears of the governments intention to legislate the real decisions have already happened and the rest of the legislative process is pretty much predictable.  The epic legislative battles the US Congress engages in over everything important would be impossible in our system.

So, somewhat paradoxically, I dislike the parliamentarian system because it disempowers parliament. I would prefer to have direct popular elections of a chancellor who wouldn’t be responsible to parliament.  I’m not sure how strong a veto, if any, that chancellor or their government should have. The American version is clearly much to strong, but I don’t know how weak a chancellor can be made without ending up effectively dependent on parliament. This opinion is, by the way, very radical; the parliamentary system is utterly uncontroversial in Germany.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Since I no longer need to refer to repealed parts, I will now cite the Basic Law according to the official translation[pdf].
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