Acting in accordance with the constitution

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Chancellor Angela Merkel is sworn in by Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble in the German Bundestag.

Back in the German Bundestag, the Chancellor is sworn in by Wolfgang Schäuble.

Photo: Bundesregierung/Steins

1. Government with clear tasks

The provisions of the Basic Law form the framework for the exercise of government powers, including those of executive government. The executive government, i.e. the Cabinet, consists of the Chancellor and the Federal Ministers (Article 62, Basic Law). The status of the head of government as a key political figure has been stressed. In contrast to the Federal Ministers, he is elected by the majority of the Bundestag and, as such, has a higher level of political authority than anyone else in the Cabinet.

2. Chancellor's election and term of office

The Chancellor is elected by the Bundestag in accordance with Article 63. The Federal President is allowed to propose a candidate only in the first round of voting. Here the authors of the Basic Law learned a clear lesson from the Weimar Republic where the President was able to appoint and dismiss the Chancellor at will. If there is no absolute majority in the first round of voting the Bundestag has fourteen days time in which it can elect a Chancellor in as many rounds of voting as desired. Here again an absolute majority is needed to win (Article 63, 3, Basic Law). If this second phase fails to produce the desired result the parliament must vote without delay in a third phase. If the candidate for Chancellor receives only a relative majority the President is required to step in. He must either appoint the candidate for Chancellor who received the largest number of votes or he must dissolve the Bundestag (Article 63, 4, Basic Law).In the 18 times a Chancellor has been elected since 1949 all the heads of government have received the required a majority in the first round of voting. However the candidate elected is not officially Chancellor until he has received a certificate of appointment from the Federal President (Article 63, 2, Basic Law). A Chancellor's term in office normally ends when the newly elected Bundestag convenes for its first meeting (Article 69, Basic Law). However, the parliament can express a lack of confidence in the head of government by electing a successor with an absolute majority (Article 67, Basic Law). Helmut Kohl is the only Chancellor in the history of the Federal Republic to have been elected in this way. He succeeded Helmut Schmidt as a result of a constructive vote of no confidence in 1982. At the request of the Federal President a deposed Chancellor is required to continue to conduct the affairs of office until the appointment of his successor (Article 69, Basic Law).

3. Chancellor's powers

Executive power is personified by the Chancellor. He is, as it were, the "captain" of the ship of state. The Basic Law confirms his strong position: Under Article 64 of the Basic Law the formation of a Cabinet is the prerogative of the Chancellor, who proposes the candidates to the Federal President. Federal Ministers are dismissed in the same way. Under Article 65 of the Basic Law the Chancellor determines and is responsible for general policy guidelines. He chairs the Cabinet meetings. The Chancellor also appoints a Deputy Chancellor (Article 69, Basic Law). This function is assumed by a Federal Minister, usually the Minister for Foreign Affairs. If the government in question is a coalition government it is customary for a member of the other party in the coalition to be appointed Deputy Chancellor. In case of an attack on the country the Chancellor has command of the armed forces (Article 115h, Basic Law). The Chancellor can ascertain by means of a vote of confidence whether or not he has the support of the Bundestag for his policies (Article 68, Basic Law). If the Chancellor's motion is not supported by a majority the Chancellor has the right to propose to the Federal President that the parliament be dissolved. This right lapses as soon as the Bundestag elects another Chancellor with a majority of its members. Forty-eight hours must elapse between the motion and the vote thereon.

4. Ministers' responsibilities and terms of office

In accordance with Article 65 of the Basic Law the Federal Ministers conduct the affairs of their departments autonomously and on their own responsibility. However, they are bound by the policy guidelines laid down by the Chancellor. If there are differing views in the Cabinet, a majority of ministers decides on the course to be followed. Reference is made in the Basic Law to individual ministerial functions: foreign affairs, internal affairs, justice, finance, and defence. It is specifically stated that power of command in respect of the armed forces is vested in the Federal Minister of Defence (Article 65a, Basic Law). In peacetime he has sole responsibility for commanding the armed forces. Aside from the right of the Chancellor to propose the appointment or dismissal of ministers (Article 64, Basic Law), their term of office is limited for various other reasons. The tenure of office of Federal Ministers ends in any event on the first meeting of a new Bundestag (Article 69, Basic Law). The tenure of office of Federal Ministers also ends on any other termination of the tenure of office of the Federal Chancellor. Finally, Federal Ministers can terminate their tenure of office by resigning. At the request of the Federal Chancellor or of the Federal President a Federal Minister is required to continue to transact the affairs of his office until the appointment of a successor (Article 69, Basic Law).

5. Members of government must be independent

To ensure their independence the members of the Cabinet are not allowed to hold any other salaried position (Article 66, Basic Law). This means that simultaneous engagement in a trade or occupation, practice of a profession, or holding of a further office is strictly prohibited.