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Constitutional basis

Articles 54 to 61 of the Basic Law

The Basic Law, Germany’s constitution, devotes an entire chapter (Section V, Articles 54 to 61) to the Federal President. Besides the tasks and powers outlined in this section, others are described elsewhere in the constitution or in other laws, and still more have simply become established over time.

Function of the Federal President in terms of state theory

As head of state, the Federal President is for protocol purposes the most important man in Germany. He is the constitutional organ which represents the Federal Republic of Germany both at home and abroad. In his actions and public appearances, the Federal President makes the state itself – its existence, its legitimacy, its unity – visible. This at the same time involves an integrative role and the control function of upholding the law and the constitution. There is also a political reserve function for times of crisis in the parliamentary system of government.

Departure from Weimar

Traditionally, the Federal President’s tasks and powers are described in comparison with those of the Reich President under the Weimar constitution. The Reich President had a great number of powers which, in times of crisis in parliament, more or less enabled him to direct state affairs himself. Towards the end of the Weimar Republic, Reich President von Hindenburg made very unfortunate use of these possibilities. Consequently, the Parliamentary Council resolved to strictly limit the Federal President’s right to intervene in politics. As a result, the Federal President can now neither appoint the Chancellor independently nor issue emergency decrees; nor does he have supreme command over the Armed Forces.

After more than sixty years of constitutional tradition with the Basic Law, specific state practices shape the office of Federal President. This office assumes its contours in its interactions with the other constitutional organs (German Bundestag, Bundesrat, Federal Government, Federal Constitutional Court).

Tasks of the Federal President

The traditional functions of the Federal President as head of state include:

• representing the Federal Republic of Germany both at home and abroad (through public appearances at state, social and cultural events, speeches, visits to different Länder and communities in Germany, state visits abroad and as host to foreign dignitaries and state guests);

• representing the Federal Republic of Germany for the purposes of international law (Article 59 (1) sentence 1 of the Basic Law), concluding treaties with foreign states (Article 59 (1) sentence 2 of the Basic Law), accrediting (appointing) German envoys and receiving (receiving the letters of credence of) foreign envoys (Article 59 (1) sentence 3 of the Basic Law).

His other prime tasks include:

• proposing the Federal Chancellor (Article 63 of the Basic Law);

• appointing and dismissing the Federal Chancellor (Articles 63 and 67 of the Basic Law) and Federal Ministers (Article 64 of the Basic Law);

• dissolving the Bundestag (Article 63 (4) sentence 3 and Article 68 of the Basic Law);

• certifying (signing) and promulgating laws (Article 82 of the Basic Law);

• appointing and dismissing federal judges, federal civil servants, and commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the Armed Forces (Article 60 (1) of the Basic Law);

• exercising the power to pardon individual offenders on behalf of the Federation (Article 60 (2) of the Basic Law);

• awarding honours on behalf of the Federation.

How the incumbent can shape the office of President

The Federal President is the only constitutional organ to consist of only one person. As a result, the incumbent’s personality automatically plays a huge part in determining how he exercises the role. It is not least for this reason that state practice and tradition have exerted substantial influence on the Federal President’s constitutional position today.

Even if there is nothing in the Basic Law which actually bans the Federal President from making political statements, the head of state generally does not comment publicly on issues in the news, particularly when there is some controversy among the political parties. This party-political neutrality and distance from day-to-day party politics allow the Federal President to be a source of clarification, to dismantle prejudices, to articulate what is in the minds of the citizens, to influence public debate, to voice criticism, offer suggestions and make proposals. In order to remain above party politics, all Federal Presidents have suspended any party membership during their term of office.