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The court may have the last word on early electionsImage: dpa

Background: Federal Constitutional Court

Märte Burmeister (dre)

Germany's high court is the authority on upholding the country's constitution and ensuring it's laws are adhered to. That goes for the chancellor's self-confidence vote and call for early elections this September.


President Horst Köhler's announcement on whether or not he approves of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's move to dissolve parliament and call new elections this fall will not be the last word on the issue.

Several politicians from Schröder's SPD and his junior coalition partner, the Green party, announced they plan to file suit at the Constitutional Court should Köhler approve Schröder's unusual move of engineering a self-confidence vote against himself in order to pave the way for new elections.

The court has seen this before. In December 1982, Helmut Kohl called for a vote of self-confidence against himself. The court sided with him, ultimately dismissing the suits brought against the move and paving the way for Kohl's subsequent election.

Legal experts are divided on Schröder's chances. Some, referring to Kohl, say the court will allow Schröder to call early elections. Others say the chancellor's government, despite facing a blockade of its reforms by not having a majority in the upper house of parliament, is still able to govern.

Vertrauensfrage Helmut Kohl
Helmut Kohl in 1982, after calling for a vote of confidence vote in his government that he intended to lose.Image: AP

Impressive record since founding

The court was established in Karlsruhe in 1951 and includes 16 judges. Half of them are nominated and approved by the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament; the other half by the upper house, the Bundesrat. The judges serve a maximum of 12 years, or until their 68th birthday.

The 16 are split into groups of eight. One half of the court deals with the constitutional rights of citizens, the other with matters of state -- such as the vote of confidence.

Anyone can petition the court to consider a case. Since 1951, an impressive 136,622 petitions have been sent in for consideration. Of those, 131,445 were constitutional complaints by normal citizens. But only 2.5 percent of those were considered and judged on.

As a rule, the court only considers cases that are of serious constitutional importance and have gone through lower courts.

Headscarves and abortion

Normal cases begin when a lower court decides a law is unconstitutional and won't implement it, or when the federal government, a state government or two-thirds of the Bundestag want a law or policy reconsidered.

Some of the country's most controversial issues, such as the wearing of headscarves by teachers, tuition fees and abortion, have been decided on by the court.

Fereshta Ludin Bundesverfassungsgericht mit Thumbnail
In September 2003, the court ruled that the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg cannot forbid Muslim teacher Fereshta Ludin from wearing a headscarf in classroom under current law.Image: AP

Whether Schröder will get his early election wish, will depend on the eight-judge panel led by Winfried Hassemer. The panel typically decides on matters of party, parliamentary and election law -- including Schröder's manipulated self-confidence vote. How they will react could be evident as soon as Köhler announces his decision. Should he approve of the Schröder move to call new elections, the court can block his decision in a speeded-up process, or decide whether it was constitutionally sound at a later date.

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