The Office of the German President

Contrary to the United States and other presidential political systems, the office of the President of the Federal Republic of Germany is largely ceremonial. Germany has a parliamentary system, therefore, the office of the Chancellor is politically more powerful. However, the President is nominally the head of state and the German Basic Law (Grundgesetz) provides him with two powerful tools:

  1. The German President may dissolve the German Parliament (Bundestag) at the request of the Chancellor, if a vote of confidence for the Chancellor fails in the Bundestag. This has happened three times in the history of the Federal Republic.
  2. The President signs the bills adopted by the Bundestag into law. He has the right to refuse his signature on the grounds of unconstitutionality of the bill or the way the bill was adopted. German Presidents have used this right very sparingly; currently, it has been used only about eight times. Legal scholars debate how far this right of refusal can be extended and if it also includes rejecting bills on content only.

Apart from these basic functions, German Presidents have historically molded the office to their characters. Some Presidents were more outspoken on political issues, whereas others viewed their role to be the President to all Germans and unite the country. While German Presidents are in general members of a political party, they do not have to be and the office is largely considered to be a non-political office. Nonetheless, the party holding the majority in the Bundestag usually succeeds in electing its candidate to become President.

The President is elected for a five-year term and can only be re-elected once. He or she is elected by the Bundesversammlung (Federal Convention), which is made up by the members of the German parliament and the same number of representatives of the German states. Its only function is to elect the German President; the election normally takes place on May 23–the founding date of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949. Since then, Germany has had 10 Presidents (including Christian Wulff, the most recent German President):

Theodor Heuss (1949–1959)
Heinrich Lübke (1959–1969)
Gustav Heinemann (1969–1974)
Walter Scheel (1974–1979)
Karl Carstens (1979–1984)
Richard von Weizsäcker (1984–1994)
Roman Herzog (1994–1999)
Johannes Rau (1999–2004)
Horst Köhler (2004–2010)
Christian Wulff (2010-early 2012)

The Most Recent German President
The latest President, Christian Wulff, was elected on June 30, 2010. Early election was necessary because the previous German President, Horst Köhler, had resigned in the wake of controversial remarks on Germany’s military presence in Afghanistan.  Mr. Wulff is a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and had been the Prime Minister of Lower Saxony, a northern German state, from 2003 until his election as German President. In his election, he beat the candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens, who had nominated Joachim Gauck, the former Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives. Being elected at the age of 51, Mr. Wulff became Germany’s youngest President. Prior to his election, Mr. Wulff was a rising star in the CDU and was considered by many to be a potential rival to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The Controversy Surrounding Wulff
At the end of 2011, President Wulff became ensnared in a controversy surrounding a private loan provided to him by the wife of a businessman while he was still Prime Minister of Lower Saxony. In an inquiry in the parliament of Lower Saxony, Wulff had not admitted to those ties–for which he apologized shortly before Christmas. Additionally, the controversy began to heat up in January 2012 when one of Germany’s leading daily newspapers, Die Bild Zeitung, revealed that Wulff had applied pressure to prevent the story from being published. President Wulff appeared in a televised interview on January 4, 2012 to address the allegation and increase transparency, but criticism about his handling of the affairs continues to date.

Resignation of President Wulff and the Road Ahead
On Thursday, February 16, 2012, the office of the state prosecutor of Lower Saxony announced that it would ask the German parliament to vote to lift the immunity of the President in order to launch a formal investigation. This step is unprecedented in German politics. The parliamentary vote was considered a formality and approval was assured. Consequently, President Wulff resigned on February 17, 2012, effective immediately.  German law requires the Federal Convention to convene within the next thirty days to elect a new President. While the governing coalition under Chancellor Merkel still holds a majority in the Federal Convention, in order to elect a candidate in the first two rounds an absolute majority is needed. The third round, and any subsequent round thereafter,  only requires a simple majority. Until a new President is elected, the President of the German Bundesrat (the upper house of the German parliament) and Prime Minister of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer of the Christian Social Union, will take on the official business of the Federal Presidency.

  • R.G. Livingston

    Dr. Verclas should have mentioned that her research institution over twenty years ago published an short but good analytical study of the German Presidency it the AICGS series of the time on institutions of German democracy.

    • Brian

      My name is Brian Veber and I am the Communications Coordinator at AICGS. I just wanted to reach out to you regarding your comments on our site. We have to approve all comments before they can be posted to the public so that we can keep any spam or profanity out of our message boards. There was nothing wrong with your comment, the “moderation” message only means that the comment is awaiting approval. That being said, we appreciate your comments on our site and I will look to add the piece you have suggested to these essays, as that is a good recommendation.

      Thank you,
      Brian Veber