Karlheinz Niclauss


The Federal Government: Variations of Chancellor Dominance, from Ludger Helms (Ed.): Institutions and Institutional Change in the Federal Republic of Germany, London-New York 2000, pp. 65-83




To the political analyst the German government looks like a three-storeyed building. Generally, the observer will first of all focus his attention on its organisation, its formal decision-making process and its juridical rules and regulations. All this is to be found at the ground floor of the government. In order to understand how the German government works in practice, a look at the first floor seems to be indispensable. Here political parties and government coalitions, largely acting on terms of informal constitutional conventions, shape the political process. On the second and upper floor the role of government in the German political system is under discussion. In this context the conduct of political parties during election campaigns and the popular legitimacy of chancellors and coalitions attract the attention of political scientists.


To describe the Federal Government becomes more and more difficult from floor to floor. The regulations and institutions of government may easily be understood. They will be treated in the next section of this paper. When on the first floor the dimension of political parties has to be considered, a detailed analysis becomes more intricate. These topics will be the dominant theme in the second subsection. On the second floor, in particular, the personalising and plebiscitary elements of the German >chancellor democracy< will be dealt with. These largely unresolved questions will be the subject of the last main section of this chapter.


Constitutional provisions in the central government territory


With regard to the organisation and the judicial rules of the Federal Government, the Basic Law constitutes the most important source of reference. The relevant stipulations differ significantly from the corresponding rules of the Weimar Republic and most other democracies. According to Art. 63 of the Basic Law the chancellor is elected by the Bundestag. The federal president proposes a candidate for the first ballot; but if his candidate fails to receive an absolute majority  it is the turn of the parliamentary parties to present further candidates. Since 1949, however, the candidate proposed by the President has always received the required majority in the first ballot. In order to remove the chancellor from office the authors of the Basic Law found the elegant solution of the famous constructive vote of no-confidence: the Bundestag may overthrow the government only by electing a new chancellor with an overall majority.


According to empirical findings the effect of this regulation has been overestimated, since only one out of six chancellors lost his office following a constructive vote of no-confidence. This happened in 1982, when the Free Democratic Party (FDP) changed its coalition partner. Helmut Kohl was elected chancellor in order to replace Helmut Schmidt and to form a new government of Christian Democrats and Liberals (CDU/CSU and FDP). Nevertheless, the vote of no-confidence demonstrates the chancellor’s outstanding position in the cabinet. He proposes the ministers to be appointed or dismissed by the federal president. In case he falls or resigns all ministers lose their office. As far as constitutional rules are concerned, there is only one which puts the German Chancellor at a disadvantage compared to the British prime minister: the right to dissolve parliament in the British manner is not at his disposal. He can manage a dissolution of the Bundestag before its term has expired only by using the vote of confidence (Art. 68 of the Basic Law). During this procedure, which was applied by Willy Brand in 1972 and by Helmut Kohl 10 years later, the parliamentary parties of the coalition have to deny confidence in their own government. When Kohl introduced his vote of confidence in December 1982, the government parties abstained and the vote was lost by 218 to eight. Therefore the premature dissolution of parliament is highly controversial both among  the judiciary and the public.


One of the Ministers is  appointed vice-chancellor and acts as the chancellor’s deputy. According to a convention, which has resulted from political practice, this position is occupied  by the foreign minister who, at the same time, is the leading politician of the junior coalition partner. In the cabinets of Brandt, Schmidt and Kohl the vice-chancellorship and the foreign ministry were >hereditary farms< of the FDP. When the Schröder government was  formed, the Greens, of course, filled the vacancy with Josef (´Joschka´) Fischer. The number of ministers has varied over the years from 15 under Adenauer to 24 under Kohl in 1987. At present, in May 1999, the federal government consists of 15 ministers plus the chancellor. The parliamentary secretaries of state, altogether 24, are not members of the cabinet. Their task is to support their ministers´ (or the chancellor´s) relationship with parliament, parties and interest groups. The parliamentary secretaries of state of the chancellor and the foreign minister are named ministers of state (Staatsminister).  The chancellor disposes of the power of organisation in the federal government. He may determine the number and the jurisdiction of ministries and may even appoint ministers without portfolio. This competence is an implied one and not expressly conferred by the constitution. Chancellor Kohl made use of it during the German unification process when he supplemented his government with five politicians from East Germany towards the end of 1990. Immediately after reunification he dissolved the Ministry for Inner-German Relations, now redundant. Instead, he established two new ministries for ´family and seniors´ and ´women und youth´ in order to give Christian-Democratic women a stronger representation in the federal government.


Chancellor Schröder reorganised the competence of ministries in many respects. His first Federal Minister of Finance, Oskar Lafontaine, profited most from these modifications, receiving  jurisdiction over economic politics in Europe, statistics, economic research and the expert committees for economic development. According to official statements the idea behind this reorganisation was to create a treasury department comparable with other European countries, e.g. Britain and France. Commentators, however, referred to Lafontaine´s position as leader of the Social Democratic Party which granted him much more power than any other minister in the government. The minister of economics had to hand over competences to the Ministry of Finance but received jurisdiction over promoting research and ventures on new technologies. Until now, the reorganisations have continued under the new Minister of Finance, Hans Eichel. The former ministries for transport and housing were merged and are headed by Franz Müntefering, the manger of the Social Democratic election campaign.


Using the >power of organisation<, German chancellors built up the Federal Chancellor’s Office, which is not mentioned in the Basic Law. Adenauer established this administration immediately after being elected chancellor in 1949. The office co-ordinates the activities of the individual ministries and prepares the government’s guidelines. It is now headed by a secretary of state and enables the chancellor to lead the government. It has been continually expanding since the 1950s and today employs a staff of about 450. The policy units of the Chancellor’s Office are either ´mirror-units´ (Spiegelreferate) which are responsible for the policy field of a single ministry, or >cross-sectional units< (Querschnittsreferate), whose responsibilities cut across several ministries. An example of the former is unit No. 312, named >Ministry of Public Health<; an example of the latter is unit No. 131 dealing with the relationship between the federation and the Laender. Division 5 of the Federal Chancellor’s Office has the delicate task of supervising and co-ordinating the three intelligence services of the Federal Republic. One of them, the Federal Intelligence Service (BND), works for the chancellor directly, whereas the others are attached to the Ministries of Defence and Interior (1)..


Starting with the foundation of the Federal Republic, the Chancellor’s Office has been performing tasks which could not be assigned to the ministries: when, under the Occupation Statute, foreign policy was reserved to the occupying powers and the Federal Republic was deprived of a Foreign Ministry, Adenauer used his office to manage foreign relations. German rearmament, too, was prepared in the Chancellor’s Office. Under its custody the >Amt Blank< had already grown to the size of a ministry before being officially named the Ministry of Defence in 1955. The new chancellor Schröder followed this pattern when reorganising the competences for East Germany, the area of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). He appointed a commissioner for the new Laender, who is a Minister of State at the Chancellor´s Office. Another reorganisation measure was implemented for the field of cultural affairs: since these competences according to the Basic Law fall for the most part within the jurisdiction of the Laender, the foundation of a federal cultural ministry was not practicable. Therefore, Schröder´s candidate for cultural affairs, the publisher and political outsider Michael Naumann, became Minister of State in the Chancellor’s Office. Here he is attached to the chancellor directly and administers the greater part of the federation´s cultural competences, in particular the >Abteilung K.<, which under Chancellor Kohl was part of the Interior Ministry. In addition to the Federal Chancellor’s Office and the Federal Intelligence Service the Chancellor disposes of the Federal Press and Information Office. This administration keeps the Chancellor permanently informed of public opinion in Germany and abroad. On the other hand, the Press Office’s task is to explain the policy of the federal government to the media. It is therefore called the speaking-tube and the ear-trumpet of the chancellor.


Within the German government a number of cabinet committees have been created. They are chaired by the chancellor and consist of a small number of Ministers. The Chancellor’s Office functions as a secretary’s  office for the committees. Although the cabinet committees place the chancellor in the same privileged position as the British prime minister, their number and their political weight is less than in Britain (2). During Kohl’s Chancellorship seven cabinet committees were counted. The most important one is the Federal Security Council (Bundessicherheitsrat). In 1998 the >red-green< government agreed to incorporate the Ministry of Economic Development into the Security Council, because insecurity frequently originates from social and political underdevelopment.


On the organisational level of government the Basic Law imposes three important political counterweights: the federal structure including the Bundesrat as representation of the Laender, the Federal Constitutional Court, and the Bundesbank whose competences in the near future will be taken over by the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. These three institutions function as checks and balances to the federal government and are examined in greater detail by other authors in this volume. Executive leadership in Germany from the constitutional point of  view is more confined  than in Britain. The German chancellor, compared with his British counterpart, seems to be acting in a >restrictive domestic leadership setting<. The German case of leadership may therefore be called a dispersed one (3). Nevertheless, the German government should be named >chancellor government< rather than cabinet government, although not every chancellor is able to live up to these expectations at any time, given the strong impact of party and coalition politics.


When interpreting the text of the Basic Law, constitutional lawyers distinguish between three principles within the federal government: the chancellor principle (Kanzlerprinzip), the departmental principle (Ressortprinzip) and the cabinet principle (Kabinettsprinzip) (Article 65 of the Basic Law). According to the chancellor principle the chancellor determines the guidelines of politics. The departmental principle enables the individual ministers to conduct their department under their own responsibility. Finally, the constitution on several occasions prescribes a decision of the whole cabinet (Articles 35, 37, 65, 84-86 and 91 of the Basic Law). However, the three principles provide little guidance when it comes to understanding the political process within the government. David Southern considers them as >a rather ill defined combination< (7). Taking the text of the constitution separately from the political context, the chancellor principle is the dominating one. The chancellor >bears responsibility< for government policy to the Bundestag, whereas the ministers are not individually responsible to the Bundestag. In case of conflict the chancellor could, in theory, dismiss all his ministers and appoint a new cabinet. But his success (or failure) depends less on the Basic Law and  his >personality< than many authors claim. Much more important are his position in his own party and his relationship with the coalition partner.


Parties, coalitions and conventions


If we take into account the role of parties and coalitions the particular type of German government comes into view more clearly. Whereas the British prime minister chairs a one-party-government, virtually all governments of the Federal Republic since 1949 have been coalition governments. This applies even to the era of Adenauer’s impressive electoral results: in 1953 he already won a tiny overall majority of Bundestag seats for the Christian Democrats; but he had to work for a two-thirds majority in order to get passed the modifications of the Basic Law which were linked up with the rearmament of West Germany. When Adenauer won a clear absolute majority for his CDU/CSU in 1957, he nevertheless formed a coalition government with the small German Party (DP) which kept its two seats in the cabinet (5). Since the foundation of the Federal Republic in 1949 the Bavarian CSU has been the >sister party< of the CDU. Both parties form a common parliamentary party in the Bundestag. The CSU deputies, however, are well organised  in the Bavarian group (Landesgruppe) and act like a coalition partner of the CDU. They usually held three or four ministries in a Christian-Democratic headed government. In 1957 they concluded for the first time a written coalition agreement with the CDU.


The competences attributed to the chancellor by the Basic Law are significantly limited by coalition politics. According to the constitution he is free to choose his Ministers. But as soon as a ministry is conceded to the coalition partner the latter decides about the appointment to the post. The succession of Foreign Minister Genscher in 1992 was a case in point: after nominating Mrs Adam-Schwaetzer for that position, the Liberals suddenly changed their minds and proposed Klaus Kinkel, whom Chancellor Kohl had to accept. When the FDP in 1993 replaced its Minister for Economics, the designated Minister Rexrodt declared his appointment by the chancellor to be only a matter of form (6). With regard to ministries occupied by the coalition partner, the >chancellor principle< is limited and the >departmental principle< gains importance. Since the chancellor is active in the field of foreign policy, from time to time tensions between the Chancellor´s Office and the Foreign Minsitry occur. This happened during the Grand Coalition (1966-69) between Chancellor Kiesinger (CDU) and the then Foreign Minister Brandt (SPD) as well as during the reunification process. In the numerous descriptions and documentations of this process, which were inspired by Chancellor Kohl, Foreign Minister Genscher plays only a subordinate part. The book by Elbe and Kiessler seems lightly biased in the opposite direction (7). Generally, coalition governments constrain the activities of the political leader. They force him to act as a manager forging compromises in order to keep his coalition together. On the other hand, the coalition partner can be helpful to the Chancellor. Its stubbornness may serve as a pretext to reject expectations from the chancellor´s own party and to explain the failure to achieve certain political aims.


With regard to the influential interest groups there are some unwritten rules which every chancellor has to respect when composing his cabinet. The Minister of Agriculture, for example, had to come from the farmers´ lobby, whereas the Minister of Labour has to be a union representative. The Minister of Justice should be trained in law and the Minister of Defence should have served in the armed forces. Significantly, Chancellor Schröder accommodated to all these demands and with Werner Müller even nominated a former industrial manager and non-party member for the Ministry of Economics.


When looking at the overthrow of chancellors we notice that in most cases problems within the government coalition or within the chancellor´s party were the decisive factors. Only after long pressure by his own party and parliamentary group did Adenauer agree to resign and to accept Erhard as his successor. Pressure also came from his coalition partner FDP, which after the raid against the news magazine >Der Spiegel< in 1962 temporarily left Adenauer’s government. Erhard had to resign because his coalition with the Liberals (FDP) broke down, but also because of the opposing >Gaullists< in his own Party, which demanded a closer co-operation with France. Brandt’s replacement by Schmidt was an intra-party exchange of the chancellor, managed by the Social Democratic leadership. The vote of no-confidence against Helmut Schmidt resulted from the FDP’s change of coalition partner but also from opposition within the chancellor’s own party. So far only two chancellors have lost their office as a consequence of general elections: The Chancellor of the Grand Coalition, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, missed the overall majority for his CDU/CSU in 1969, and in 1998 Helmut Kohl failed in his attempt to continue his coalition with the FDP. The change of government in autumn 1998 was unique in Germany’s parliamentary history. For the first time the parties in government were completely replaced by opposition parties. >Alternative government< as in the the British model has been practised only 50 years after the founding of the Federal Republic.


In Great Britain the prime minister is at the same time leader of his party and chairman of his parliamentary group. In Germany these three posts are quite distinct from each other. No chancellor has ever been chairman of the parliamentary party. The personal union of chancellorship and leadership of the party in government is common; however, only Willy Brandt and Helmut Kohl were leaders of their parties when becoming chancellor. Adenauer, Erhard, Kiesinger and Schröder took over party leadership during their incumbency. Ludwig Erhard, who saw himself as an expert in economics and later on as a non-partisan >Volkskanzler< (people’s chancellor), has been described as a guest in the CDU. He became chairman of the CDU only in March 1966 and proved incapable of using his party leadership in support of his government (8). Party leadership and chancellorship were separated during Helmut Schmidt’s government because Willy Brandt continued as a party leader after his resignation as chancellor in 1974. This division of labour worked fairly well until the end of the 1970s. Under the impact of controversial arguments about  the deployment of middle-range missiles according to the twin-track decision and about nuclear energy the differences between the SPD and the government became more articulate during the last three years before Schmidt’s overthrow in October 1982 (9). After the federal elections of 1998 the chancellorship and Social Democratic party leadership were separated once again: the  party´s chairman Oskar Lafontaine held the influential Ministry of Finance in the Schröder government. When Lafontaine resigned, Chancellor Schröder took over the leadership of the Social Democrats without much difficulty. Whether the SPD will operate like a genuine party of the chancellor is a question to be answered by future commentators.


In order to make sure that his policy is supported by parties and parliament German chancellors face a comprehensive work of co-ordination. This work goes beyond the area of cabinet and parliament and includes, among others, state governments as well as interest groups. Outstanding examples of Adenauer´s role as an intermediary are the co-determination law for the coal, iron and steel industries of 1951 and the investment promotion law of 1952. In both cases Adenauer acted independently and sometimes contrary to the intentions of his Minister of Economics Ludwig Erhard (10). Already during the 50s there were informal talks between members of Adenauer’s cabinet and the government’s parliamentary parties. Adenauer relied on his >kitchen cabinet< including Krone, Hallstein, Globke, Blankenhorn and von Eckardt. When the FDP returned to the cabinet in 1961, a coalition agreement was signed which laid down periodical coalition talks. The chancellor, ministers, the parliamentary party whips, party politicians and politicians from the Laender took part in the conferences. During the Grand Coalition (1966-69) the partners CDU/CSU and SPD established the >Kressbronn circle< (Kressbronner Kreis) as an informal coalition committee. It was composed of government ministers and leading politicians of the parliamentary party groups from both coalition partners.  Chancellor Schmidt called upon his famous trio of three advisers (Kleeblatt). He met weekly with Bölling, Schüler and Wischnewski in the Chancellor´s Office to discuss and prepare the government´s decisions. In 1977 Schmidt organised a >Great crisis staff< together with the minister presidents of the Laender and politicians of the opposition  in order to meet the challenge of terrorism. In addition to that, he established a coalition round table with included Foreign Minister Genscher alongside other ministers, the whips and the managers of the two governing parties SPD and FDP (11).


Helmut Kohl continued the >coalition round< which was composed in the same way as during Schmidt’s chancellorship. Beginning in 1983 there were meetings every 10-14 days. The smaller governmental party FDP in particular demanded frequent meetings in order to have a greater say in preparing the government’s policy. Another circle of CDU/CSU and FDP during Kohl’s chancellorship was the so-called >elephants´ round< of party leaders. These meetings were intensively observed as long as the CSU leader Franz-Josef Strauss, who was not a cabinet member, took part. After Strauss’s death in 1988 the round became less important (12).


The informal committees within the governmental structure decide de facto concerning political problems of every kind. Although not mandatory in the judicial sense, their recommendations are accepted by the cabinet and the majority parties in the Bundestag. The coalition agreement of the new Social Democratic/Green government also established a coalition committee made up of eight members from each party, designed to find a compromise in cases of conflict. Only few weeks after the formation of the new government informal talks proved to be necessary.  In view of differences over taxation within the SPD and the government the Greens demanded a meeting of the coalition committee. On the evening of  3 December 1998, seven representatives of the Greens met with six Social Democrats. From both sides three cabinet members, two or three representatives of the parliamentary party and one of the party leadership, respectively, took part in the meeting. The coalition partners agreed about weekly consultations in the future in order to improve communication between the two parties and parliamentary groups. Both sides were keen to avoid the impression that every meeting indicates major differences and tensions within the >red-green< government.


There is no doubt that informal circles and committees work at the expense of the cabinet. Ministers, whose department is of secondary importance and who are not leading party politicians, may feel like the cabinet’s backbenchers. Still, in Germany informal government seems indispensable, as powerful positions are not represented in the cabinet. This applies to the whips or even the leaders of governmental parties, but first of all to the minister-presidents and ministers of the Laender governments. Last but not least, the minor coalition partners show great interest in informal bargaining, where they can meet with the leading governmental party on equal terms.


The written coalition agreements of course cut across the chancellor’s guideline competences, as David Southern remarks. But whether informal committees strengthen or weaken his political power is still debated among scholars (13). Even in informal meetings the Chancellor needs the support of parties and parliamentary groups. Coalition partners who are drifting apart cannot be held together by confidential talks. But as long as the coalition government operates, its chairman determines the agenda and the date of the meetings. Sometimes he also decides who is to be invited. We may therefore compare the German informal committees with the British cabinet committees. Both enable the head of the government to transfer decisions into discrete functional units. Prime Minister and Chancellor take advantage of being informed earlier than other members of the circle and thus possess the key resource to co-ordinate and to direct the flow of the governmental process. 


The formal and informal method of decision-making from Adenauer to Schröder demonstrates the tremendous amount of co-ordinating activities which every chancellor has to perform. Therefore, to differentiate >chancellor democracy< from >co-ordinating democracy< appears rather misleading. The thesis that the German chancellorship has degenerated into a mere co-ordinating institution was obviously promoted by Helmut Kohl´s political weakness in the years before German reunification. Then Minister of Defence Rupert Scholz incautiously took over this interpretation. In an article for the newspaper Die Welt he reported that the >chancellor of the guidelines< (Richtlinienkanzler) had changed into a >co-ordinating chancellor< (Koordinationskanzler). Some days later the critic found himself outside the cabinet. Obviously, the chancellor principle had been the dominating one (14).


Chancellor democracy: the federal government´s  place in the German political system


As we have seen, a description of the German government cannot be confined to the constitutional provisions and the actual decision making process in the core-executive territory. To focus on the chancellor, his cabinet and the upper echelons of the civil service is much too narrow a perspective in understanding the role of the government and its leader. Party support is, according to Stephan Padgett, the key to the chancellor’s authority and the sine qua non of effective government (15). But even after taking into account the role of political parties, there remain important aspects of German government to be dealt with. This applies especially to the legitimacy of coalitions and chancellors, to elections and election campaigns and to the way the opposition and its chancellor candidate behave.


Chancellor democracy is often characterised as the chancellor’s dominance over his cabinet and his coalition. In case the incumbent’s fortune or competence cease, chancellor democracy collapses and, therefore, has to be replaced by a >co-ordination democracy< or some other degenerate form of government. Certainly, this understanding of chancellor democracy as a synonym with effective government is a rather simple arrangement. Much more adequate would be its description as a type of government with specific attributes. The characteristics of such a systematic concept of chancellor democracy should not only account for the >strong< chancellor, but also to the chancellor in difficulties who is about to give way to his successor. They should disclose the reasons for effective leadership as well as for the loss of power. They should also include the opposition which intends to take over according to the rules of chancellor democracy.


Looking at the course of the Federal Republic’s history five specific elements of chancellor democracy can be discerned:


1. The federal chancellor is in the centre of the formal and informal decision-making process. He has to secure support of his own party and the coalition partner. Therefore, he only can realise the chancellor principle in a political, not in a judicial sense.


2. Chancellor democracy means personalised political competition. The chancellor’s prestige is indispensable for successful government. The exigencies of personal prestige apply also to the opposition: they have to confront the incumbent with a popular shadow chancellor.


3. A close co-operation of the Chancellor with the leadership of his party is necessary. Unless the chancellor himself becomes (or already is) leader of his party, he has to control his followers by indirect means.


4. The contrast between the government and the opposition dominates the political dispute in the Federal Republic. When the Bundestag election comes into sight, the minor parties cannot withdraw from this dualism. They have to make up their mind early on the type of coalition they would prefer after the election. The difference between the two camps is a prerequisite for the so-called split vote: Only if the Free Democrats, e. g., express themselves openly in favour of a coalition with the Christian Democrats, a CDU/CSU voter would >lend< them his second vote in order to help them in crossing the 5 per cent hurdle.


5. The chancellor plays a leading role in foreign policy besides the foreign minister. He represents the Federal Republic at international conferences and frequent >summit< meetings (16).


This concept of chancellor democracy, of course, was established under the influence of Adenauer’s leadership. But it has turned out to be a valuable device for analysing the administrations of Adenauer’s successors. Only the Grand Coalition under Chancellor Kiesinger (1966-1969) stands out as an exception to the rule. Whereas virtually all governments were coalition governments consisting of one leading governmental party with one (ore more) minor parties, the Grand Coalition constituted an alliance of two partners with equal powers. The only opposition party in the Bundestag were the Free Democrats. They disposed of 49 seats and were hampered by the standing orders of that time. Therefore, the political dualism and the dominating role of the chancellor in cabinet and coalition were missing. Other elements of a chancellor democracy, however, were present evenduring the Grand Coalition: Kiesinger had his own ideas of relations with the GDR and slowed down Foreign Minister Brandt’s new policies towards The GDR and Eastern Europe. Kiesinger was also elected chairman of the CDU and respected as a leader, though he did not represent the typical party politician. When the differences within the Grand Coalition increased during the run-up to the federal election of 1969, the dualism of party politics returned. The Christian Democrats launched an election campaign with the slogan >Auf den Kanzler kommt es an< (>It all depends on the chancellor<) and narrowly missed an absolute majority obtaining 46,1 per cent of the second vote.


After the Grand Coalition came to an end the German political system with Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt in office was again dominated by the elements of chancellor democracy. Helmut Kohl differed from his Social Democratic predecessor Schmidt by his uncontested leadership of his party, the CDU. On the other hand, his public prestige was inferior to that of Schmidt. According to opinion polls, support for Kohl was lower than agreement with his own party. For the first time in the Federal Republic’s history, the governing Christian Democrats seemed to be earning a >chancellor malus< instead of the usual >chancellor bonus<. When Kohl replaced Schmidt in October 1982, he propagated the vision of an intellectual and moral turning point (Wende). This programme was too general to become politically effective. Although Kohl’s European policy from 1985 onwards proved to be quite successful, it helped little to improve his prestige in the country. In 1989, suddenly, the state of affairs in Europe changed. The countries of the Soviet Empire freed themselves from their Communist regimes and the GDR was showing signs of decomposition.


The chancellor had a chance to realise a historical vision: German reunification was imminent. During the summit conferences of 1990 Kohl acted on the same level as Bush, Gorbachev, Thatcher and Mitterand, whereas the prime minister of the GDR, de Maizière, played only a subordinate role. Kohl, up to then mainly a party politician, now governed the reunification process as a statesman. His foreign policy prestige reached the same level as Adenauer’s. As ´chancellor of German unity´ he complied fully with the fifth element of chancellor democracy (17).


The last change of government in autumn 1998 also took place according to the rules of chancellor democracy: the difference between the government and the opposition camp dominated discussions in public opinion and the media. The CDU/CSU and the Free Democrats declared themselves in favour of another joint coalition government under Helmut Kohl. On the other hand the Social Democrats and the Greens offered an alternative to the government in office. The chancellor, incumbent for 16 years, was challenged by Gerhard Schröder, the Social Democratic Minister-President of Lower Saxony. The election campaign was summarised well with the question >Kohl or Schröder?<. The positive image of Schröder was, according to election analysts, a main reason for the success of the Social Democrats. So, political polarity and personalisation paved the way for a new government and a new coalition in 1998.


Compared with the British political system, where usually one party wins the majority of seats in the House of Commons, the outcome of German elections is uncertain. Because of the party system and the electoral formula, declarations on future coalition governments can only be declarations of intent. An electoral outcome with the post-Communist PDS in the key position in 1998 might have enforced a Grand Coalition of Christian and Social Democrats.


It was French political scientists who first analysed the changes in the character of modern democracies, which became basic elements of the type of government called >chancellor democracy<. Beginning with the Fifth French Republic they observed an increasing personalisation of the political process which continued after de Gaulles´ resignation in 1969. They noticed this personnalisation du pouvoir at first being supported by popular newspapers. Later on, television intensified this trend by creating a new intimacy (intimité nouvelle) and permitting politicians to enter the living rooms of the voters (18). According to Jacques Ellul, political propaganda cannot be practised in an abstract manner but only with concrete pictures: the best subject of such pictures being the man himself  (19). Against this background one could argue that politicians only pronounce those decisions to the public which in reality were prepared by committees and administrations. But in social life things tend to become what they are thought to be, as Maurice Duverger shrewdly noticed. When the public believes the prime minister to be the chef réel of the government, this will in any case strengthen the power of the incumbent considerably (20). The prestige of Helmut Kohl as >chancellor of German unity< may be adduced in this context.


The effect of mass media is not the only and decisive reason for political personalisation. The personal element has been significant in democracies from the outset. Formerly it was related to the notables locaux, such as the mayor or the local deputy. Those men seemed to be competent to deal with the people´s grievances and wishes, whereas the president or prime minister were remote figures of symbolic meaning. With the rise of the welfare state the centre took over the jurisdiction for social and economic politics. Accordingly, the personalisation was transferred to the national government and its leader. The prerogatives of the local notables were accumulated by the roi élu (president, premier ministre) like once the rights of the seigneurs by the roi-soleil  had been (21).


Personalisation and the difference between the two camps of government and opposition together generated a plebiscitary political climate unknown to the Basic Law. Alfred Grosser already characterized Adenauer´s electoral victory of 1957 as a plebiscite. In his extensive study on the federal chancellor, Jean Amphoux described the plebiscitary elements of West German federal elections. According to his interpretation, since 1953 voters have expressed their opinion in favour of or against the incumbent chancellor and his policy (22). The impact of this plebiscitary element changed the political system: according to the Basic Law the parliamentary groups of the Bundestag are to deliberate, after the elections, as to which coalition could be formed and who should be presented as a chancellor candidate. Political reality looks quite different: Christian and Social Democrats start their election campaigns with nominating their candidates for the chancellorship. Generally the candidate of the opposition challenges the incumbent. The minor parties adjust to this dualism. Well before election day they announce  the chancellor candidate they support and the coalition they prefer. Since the Greens in 1998 were in favour of a coalition with the Social Democrats, and the FDP intended to continue Helmut Kohl´s government, a bipartisan situation (bipartisme de fait) emerged (23). Under these conditions elections became ´masked elections´. Officially, the voters elect the members of parliament. Actually, they elect the leader of the government by casting their vote for his party and his preferred party coalition.




When we summarise the results of investigating the three storeys of Federal Government we find  two aspects which are inconsistent: on the one hand the German political system is characterised by the dispersion of powers and responsibilities. The main elements of this dispersion are the Bundesrat with his far-reaching legislative competences, particularly in the field of taxes and finance, the authority of the Laender to administer the legislative decisions of the federation and the judicial review by the Federal Constitutional Court. Moreover, to find a compromise within the coalition government constitutes a permanent challenge to the Chancellor. The federal structure within the party system is much underrated in this respect: the Laender-divisions of the German parties are authorised to put up the lists of candidates for general elections. Therefore, every politician on the federal level needs the support of a party unit in one of the Laender. This division of power is partly the heritage of the occupying powers’ early decision to establish a federal structure, partly due to the German ideas of >constitutional democracy< which influenced the foundation process of the Federal Republic from 1945 to 1949. From this point of view parliament, directly elected by the people, was looked upon with distrust. Its majority should be hampered by countervailing powers(24).


On the other hand, the requirements of economic reconstruction and the social consequences of the Second World War demanded political decisions of the central government. The dispersed constitutional arrangement had to be balanced by effective leadership. This balance was brought about by the so-called chancellor democracy which supplemented the constitutional system with its conventions. In this context, the structure of the party system was most important. Voters preferred two or three parties and a dualism between government and opposition emerged. Therefore, chancellor democracy is not only a type of government but first of all a >superstructure< added to the rules of the Basic Law from 1949. This structure is the reason for inaction not being a feature of the German leadership process. The chancellor may, supported by conventions, >impose a coherent leadership strategy upon the system as a whole< (25).


Personalisation, dualism and plebiscitary elements became characteristics of several modern democracies. Generally, executive leadership has to compromise with a constitutional division of power. France can even afford a division of power within the executive. The British system, with alternating governments, majority voting and without federalism and judicial review, seems to be best  of all adjusted to the requirements of modern leadership. General elections nowadays enable the top candidates to continue or to take over the position of the chief government official. Irrespective of their different constitutions parliamentary and presidential democracies are approximating. Elections become >presidential<, while the individual parliamentary candidates are moving into the background.









1 See Ferdinand Müller-Rommel, >The Chancellor and his Staff<, in Stephen Padgett (ed), Adenauer to Kohl: The Development of             the Gennan Chanellorship (London: Hurst & Company, 1994), pp. 106-126.



2 See Robert Elgie, Political Leadership in Liberal Democracies (London: Macmillan, 1995), pp. 36-37.



3 See Alistair Cole, >Political Leadership in Western Europe: Helmut Kohl in Comparative Context<, German Politics, 7 (1998), p. 139; R. Elgie (note 2), pp. 78-105.



4 See David Southern, >The Chance]lor and the Constitution<, in S. Padgett (note 1), p. 34.



5 However, when the two concerned cabinet members Hans-Joachim Merkatz and Hans-Christoph Seebohm changed their party affiliation and became members of the CDU in 1960, the coalition government was silently trans­formed into a single-party government.



6 See Karlheinz Niclauss, >Le Gouvernement fédéral<, Pouvoirs, No. 66 (1993), pp. 102-104.



7 See Frank Elbe and Richard Kiessler, A Round Table with Sharp Corners: The Diplomatic Path to German Unity (Baden-

Baden: Nomos, 1996).


8 See Volker Hentschel, Ludwig Erhard: Ein Politikerleben (Munich: Olzog, 1996), pp. 592-598.


9 See Karlheinz Niclauss, Kanzlerdemokratie - Bonner Regierungspraxis von Konrad Adenauer bis Helmut Kohl (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1988), pp. 190-204.



10 See V. Hentschel (note 8), pp. 138-146 and 154-159.



11 See Wolfgang Rudzio, >Ínformelle Entscheidungsmuster in Bonner Koalitionsregierungen<, in Hans-Hermann Hartwich and Göttrik Wewer (eds), Regieren in der Bundesrepublik II (Qpladen: L.eske & Budrich, 1991), pp. 125-141.



12 See Waldemar Schreckenberger, >Informelle Verfahren der Entscheidungs­vorbereitung zwischen Bundesregierung und Mehrheitsfraktionen<, Zeitschrift für Parlamentsfragen, 25 (1994), pp. 329-346.



13 See D. Southern (note 4), pp. 36-37; Ludger Helms, >Das Amt des deutschen Bundeskanzlers in historisch und international vergleichender Perspektive<, Zeitschrift für Parlamentsfragen, 27 (1996), p. 704.



14 See Rupert Scholz, >Die Befugnisse des Kanzlers haben an Substanz ver­loren<, Die Welt, 5. April 1989.



15 See Stephen Padgett, >The Chancellor and his Party<, in S. Padgett (note 1), p.75.



16 See K. Niclauss (note 9), pp. 66-69



17 See William E. Paterson, >Helmut Kohl, the Vision Thing and Escaping the Semi-Sovereignty Trap<, German Politics, 7 (1998), pp. 25-27.



18 See Jacques Ellul, >Propagande et personnalisation du pouvoir<, in Léo Hamon and Albert Mabileau (eds), La Personnalisation du pouvoir (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1964), pp. 331-341.



19 See Jacques Ellul, Propagandes (Paris: Armand Colin, 1962), p. 196.



20 Maurice Duverger, La Monarchie Républicaine (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1974), pp. 30-33.



21 Ibid., pp. 33-35



22 See Alfred Grosser, >Les élections allemandes. Le plébiscite du 15e Septembre 1957<, Revue française de science politique, 7 (1957), pp. 838-864; Jean Amphoux, Le Chancellier Fédéral dans le Régime Constitutionnel de la République Fédera1 d‘Allemagne (Paris: Pichon, 1962), pp. 378-386.



23 See Jean-Claude Colliard, Les Régimes parlementaires contemporaines (Paris: Fondation National des Sciences Politiques, 1978), p. 76.



24 See Karlheinz Niclauss, Der Weg zum Grundgesetz - Demokratiegruendung in Westdeutschland 1945—1949 (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1998), pp. 73-108.



25 R Elgie (note 2), pp. 104-105.