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Overtime in Berlin

Jeanette Seiffert / reOctober 22, 2013

Even though a new government is still far off, Germany's newly elected parliament has met for its constituent assembly. The outgoing cabinet remains in office. It's all fine and normal until something critical happens.

A general view of the Bundestag, German lower house of parliament, during a constitutional meeting in Berlin October 22, 2013. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch (GERMANY - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Image: Reuters

According to Germany's constitution, parliament has a maximum of 30 days before it has to meet for the first time after a federal election. Once the constituent assembly meets, the term of the previous government ends.

But election winner Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats have so far not agreed on a coalition yet. Exploratory talks with the Greens failed and coalition talks with the Social Democrats are still under way.

But this transition period does not result in a vacuum of power. "At the beginning, nothing really happens," Timo Grunden, political scientist at Giessen University told DW.

The German constitution provides precise rules for the current scenario. If there no new government is formed by the time parliament starts meeting, the outgoing cabinet acts as caretaker government.

Merkel continues

BERLIN, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 23: Angela Merkel, German Chancellor and Chairwoman of the German Christian Democrats (CDU), looks on during a press conference after a meeting of the CDU governing board on the first day after German federal elections at CDU headquarter Konrad-Adenauer-Haus on September 23, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. The CDU finished with approximately 42% of the vote, which puts the party just shy of a majority of seats in the Bundestag. The CDU will now face the task of finding a coalition partner, which is complicated by the failure of its current partner, the German Free Democrats (FDP), to stay above the 5% necessary to retain its Bundestag seats. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
Angela Merkel remains Germany's ChancellorImage: Getty Images

Chancellor and ministers are obliged to continue doing their job. In the meantime, President Joachim Gauck assumes an important role in that he is supposed to help with negotiations between the possible coalition partners. Should the parties fail to form a government, Gauck can either appoint a minority government or call for new elections.

For the time being, things will maintain their set course. The caretaker government has the same rights and duties as a regular government. It represents Germany abroad and can field new bills. Yet that's not really democratic, says Grunden.

"They do not have a democratic mandate anymore. So the caretaker government is not lacking legality, but rather democratic legitimation."

Postponing decisions

Bundesumweltminister Peter Altmaier (3.v.l., CDU) sitzt am 17.05.2013 im Bundestag in Berlin auf der Regierungsbank und folgt der Debatte zu seiner Regierungserklärung. Der Bundestag berät über die Suche nach möglichen Endlagerstätten für radioaktiven Atommüll. Foto: Hannibal/dpa
The outgoing ministers stay in office until a new government is formedImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The caretaker government is therefore expected to restrain itself on any crucial policy matters and not make decisions the new government would likely decide upon differently.

"In case of doubt, the caretaker government would not start a controversial initiative, because they do not know if they have a majority in the Bundestag," Grunden said. "If in doubt, parliament would remind the cabinet where its limits are."

It's in that light that Chancellor Merkel's move to avoid stricter carbon emission rules for cars in the EU has been heavily criticized. Yet Timo Grunden doesn't see this particular case as problematic. It is the right and the duty of a chancellor to advocate German interests, he says: "I am sure that every German government, even one led by the Social Democrats, would have applied such pressure in Brussels."

Not made for crisis

Caretaker governments are nothing unusual for the transition period between an election and the formation of a new government. And as long as there are no crucial decisions to be made, that's no cause for concern.

In 1998 though, the Kosovo crisis heated up just when Germany happened to find itself in one such transition period. The US proposed military intervention in Kosovo, but Helmut Kohl of the Christian Democrats had just lost the election and the new government under Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder had not yet been sworn in.

"The caretaker government under Kohl then met with the likely new government to discuss what to do," Grunden explained.

In theory, a caretaker government could stay in power indefinitely. "Belgium, for instance, had a caretaker government for more than a year," said Grunden. The two major ethnic groups - French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemish - failed to agree on a new government.

In Germany though, any such drawn-out scenario is not very probable. Should the parties fail to form a government, new elections would likely be the next step.