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According to Wikipedia:

Under Article 59 (1) of the Basic Law (German Constitution), the President represents the Federal Republic of Germany in matters of international law, concludes treaties with foreign states on its behalf and accredits diplomats.

So it seems to me that (at least on paper) it's the German President who should be signing international treaties such as the Paris Climate Accords. But in reality few people outside of Germany know the President's name and many don't even realize the position exists.

So what are the de facto powers of the German President and why is he involved so little in international matters?

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    Hear about who? – motoDrizzt Jun 5 '17 at 20:51
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    Near-duplicate: politics.stackexchange.com/q/2911/1370 – Martin Schröder Jun 5 '17 at 21:24
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    When I worked in Germany it seemed to be a running joke that no one knew who the president was, there was a news story of a little kid going up to them and asking them where the toilet was and that news story was the only mention of them all the time I was there on the news! – RoguePlanetoid Jun 6 '17 at 8:20
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    I seriously didn't know they had one. And I don't think I'm generally ignorant about politics. – Tomáš Zato Jun 6 '17 at 13:42
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    I came here fully prepared to let the asker know "Germany doesn't have a president, their head of state is...". The more you know! – Sidney Jun 6 '17 at 14:08
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The reason is largely historical, the office of President was first introduced in the Weimar Republic of Germany, with significant political powers according to its constitution.

  • Article 25 of the Weimar Constitution the President had the power to unilaterally dissolve the Reichstag

  • Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution the President had the power to unilaterally suspend civil liberties.

  • Article 53 of the Weimar Constitution the President had the power to unilaterally appoint and dismiss the Chancellor and the cabinet.

Basically this created a very unstable sort of government and the Reichstag was constantly getting dismissed and re-elected. Indeed there were 8 elections between 1919 and 1932. Also the cabinet of the Weimar government kept getting appointed and dismissed as the President would appoint them, but they didn't enjoy support in the Reichstag who would promptly dismiss them. This led to the President Hindenburg appointing a bunch of cabinets who outright didn't enjoy support in the Reichstag and were referred to as "presidential" cabinets.

However it all changed in 1933 when Adolf Hitler rose to power, to some degree through abusing powers invested in the office of the President such as with the Reichstag Fire Decree. I quote a translated copy of the text below:

On the basis of Article 48 (Weimar Constitution) paragraph 2 of the Constitution of the German Reich, the following is ordered in defense against Communist state-endangering acts of violence:

Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153 of the Constitution of the German Reich are suspended until further notice. It is therefore permissible to restrict the rights of personal freedom habeas corpus, freedom of (opinion) expression, including the freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications. Warrants for House searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.

As you can see this was clearly an abuse of the power of the president and it along with the Enabling Act led to the downfall of democracy in Germany and the rise of Hitler as chancellor. In 1934 Hitler combined the offices of President and Chancellor to become the Fuhrer


So in 1949 when the West German Basic Law (or constitution) was written, the authors intentionally reduced the powers of the president and made him indirectly elected i.e elected by the Federal Convention (which basically consists of the entirety of the Bundestag and some other regional leaders) instead of the public. Now some dude who is indirectly voted in by the parliament isn't going to garner international headlines unless he is particularly controversial, since in a democracy he isn't that powerful. Also because the public don't need to go to a polling booth to tick his name they simply don't know or don't care.


Nowadays the de facto powers largely lie in the fact that the President of Germany has considerable leeway in exercising his duties, which are quoted as follows:

  • Proposing the Chancellor to the Bundestag.
  • Appointing and dismissing the Chancellor and Federal Ministers
  • Dissolving the Bundestag under certain circumstances
  • Convening the Bundestag according to article 39 of the constitution
  • Signing and promulgating laws
  • Appointing and dismissing federal judges, federal civil servants, and commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the Armed Forces
  • Exercising the power to pardon individual offenders on behalf of the Federation
  • Awarding honors on behalf of the Federation
  • Representing Germany at home and abroad

For example he could independently make representations and political suggestions which would not be allowed to some other heads of state whose role is more ceremonial e.g Her Majesty the Queen.

The President of Germany also possesses some reserve powers if all goes to pot as outlined by Article 81 of Basic Law

Legislative emergency

(1) If, in the circumstances described in Article 68, the Bundestag is not dissolved, the Federal President, at the request of the Federal Government and with the consent of the Bundesrat, may declare a state of legislative emergency with respect to a bill, if the Bundestag rejects the bill although the Federal Government has declared it to be urgent. The same shall apply if a bill has been rejected although the Federal Chancellor had combined it with a motion under Article 68.

(2) If, after a state of legislative emergency has been declared, the Bundestag again rejects the bill or adopts it in a version the Federal Government declares unacceptable, the bill shall be deemed to have become law to the extent that it receives the consent of the Bundesrat. The same shall apply if the Bundestag does not pass the bill within four weeks after it is reintroduced.

(3) During the term of office of a Federal Chancellor, any other bill rejected by the Bundestag may become law in accordance with paragraphs (1) and (2) of this Article within a period of six months after the first declaration of a state of legislative emergency. After the expiration of this period, no further declaration of a state of legislative emergency may be made during the term of office of the same Federal Chancellor.

(4) This Basic Law may neither be amended nor abrogated nor suspended in whole or in part by a law enacted pursuant to paragraph (2) of this Article.

TLDR:

President is basically ceremonial, but has some leeway in exercise of duties. You haven't heard of him because the public don't elect him and his powers were cut because Hitler used them to become a dictator.

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    Now some dude who is indirectly voted in by the parliament [...] isn't that powerful. - in an otherwise good answer, I think that particular statement is too broad. In a traditional Parliamentary system, the Prime Minister is voted in by the parliament, but it is the most powerful position there is. Isn't the German Chancellor chosen by the parliament too? I can't find anything in the Wikipedia article to suggest that the Chancellor is directly elected. (Of course the winning party always votes in their leader, but nonetheless the decision belongs to the Parliament.) – Harry Johnston Jun 5 '17 at 21:40
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    @HarryJohnston yes, the federal chancellor is elected by the parliament. It is more the other way around: Because the president is not much powerful, there is no point in electing him (or her) in a general election. – Paŭlo Ebermann Jun 5 '17 at 21:46
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    In the last ten years we've been through presidents like underwear, and mutliple times the reasons why we needed a new one yet again made quite some news... so they are in the german public eye, but only if they screw up... but yeah, TL;DR: The chancellor is who most germans would consider the big boss, not the president. – rackandboneman Jun 6 '17 at 9:51
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    @AndyT In practise, yes, the PM is the party leader as chosen by the wider party; in theory, however, it is the Parliament whose support they need; constitutionally, I believe they are actually appointed by the monarch. So the monarch appoints the PM, based on the recommendation of Parliament, which in turn takes the recommendation of the national party. From a democratic point of view, though, the public elect Parliament, and Parliament forms a Government, including the PM. All depends how you look at it, really. – IMSoP Jun 6 '17 at 10:49
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    @AndyT, the Prime Minister is elected by the winning party, because the ability to elect your choice of Prime Minister is what defines the winning party. The MPs may be obliged by party rules to vote a particular way, but AFAIK they aren't obliged by law to vote that way. – Harry Johnston Jun 6 '17 at 20:57
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As in most other parliamentary republics, the President of Germany is little more than a figurehead. However, he/she is the head of state, and is the symbol of the country and its sovereignty, and do serve as the "final guard" of the constitutional order. Per the Basic Law of Germany, the president's real (i.e., non-ceremonial) powers include:

  • dissolving the Bundestag (Parliament) when the Bundestag is unable to elect a Chancellor by majority. In this case, the President may either appoint the Chancellor-elect as the head of a minority government, or dissolve the Bundestag and order reelections;
  • to countersign, or refuse to countersign, legislation, when the President feels that the law is unconstitutional;
  • proclaim legislative emergency (see Art. 81, GG of the FRG).

In other words, the President of Germany's powers are similar to that enjoyed in other parliamentary republics and constitutional monarchies. By convention, both powers are used only sparingly by the head of state in any parliamentary regime. Overuse of those "reserve" powers may lead to constitutional crisis (e.g. the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis) and more terrible things.

On a tangent, it is not unheard of for modern constitutional monarchs to refuse to sign laws either. King Baudouin of Belgium has refused to sign a law permitting abortions, after which the cabinet was not too happy and declared him unfit to rule for a day. On the other hand, there are other heads of state who are constitutionally bound to whatever the Parliament offers to them, e.g. the King of Sweden, the Emperor of Japan.

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    Note that for most actions of the president, the chancellor (or some other member of the government) needs to sign too. The appointment of the Chancellor or dissolving the parliament in certain cases is the only real power. – Paŭlo Ebermann Jun 5 '17 at 21:49
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    Add the Queen of the United Kingdom to the list of HoSs that are constitutionally bound to sign. (Just because we don't have a written constitution doesn't mean we don't have one.) – Martin Bonner Jun 6 '17 at 8:52
  • @PaŭloEbermann: And even then he has no real freedom. The best he can do is refuse to sign a law and pass it to the Bundesverfassungsgericht. – Martin Schröder Jun 6 '17 at 15:42
  • @MartinBonner: "The Queen has a veto. The Queen has at most one veto." :-) – Martin Schröder Jun 6 '17 at 15:42
  • @MartinSchröder Interesting: theguardian.com/uk/2013/jan/14/secret-papers-royals-veto-bills It appears that the Queen has rather more powers than I thought. I do not approve. – Martin Bonner Jun 6 '17 at 16:02

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