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How Germany chooses its chancellor

Nancy Isenson

At the start of an election campaign the big parties field their candidates for the top job. But it's not a done deal until the new parliament, the Bundestag, votes him or her in. DW explains how it works.

Angela Merkel and Parliament President Wolfgang Schäuble
Angela Merkel taking her oath of office in 2018Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

Germany is always run by a coalition of two or three parties, and the new Bundestag must hold its first session within 30 days of the general election, so the party that won the most votes begins its work fairly quickly.

The winner launches talks with the other parties, with the goal of finding a partner or partners, with whom it then controls an absolute majority of the seats in the Bundestag; the new government must, of course, be able to get legislation passed by parliament.

Once it's clear with whom the party that has won the most seats will establish a coalition, negotiations to draft a coalition agreement, the basis of the new government, can begin. The agreement lays down the new government's plans for the four-year term. And in these talks, the coalition partners name: who they want to be chancellor and who they want to hold which positions in the cabinet.

Next, the 600-plus members of the newly elected Bundestag hold their first session and vote for the next chancellor in a secret ballot. It's up to the President to suggest a candidate when the Bundestag convenes for the first time. He is not obliged to suggest the person the parties may have singled out in coalition talks, but he must present a candidate who has a reasonable chance of being voted in.

If that person receives an absolute majority in the first round of voting, the president must declare him or her chancellor.

Deutschland Berlin - Vereidigung des Bundespraesidenten Frank-Walter Steinmeier
Germany's plenary hallImage: picture-alliance/S. Simon/A. Hilse

So far, every German chancellor has been elected in the first round, though it has sometimes been close. Konrad Adenauer was elected West Germany's first chancellor in 1949 with the barest majority possible. Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl each received only one vote more than necessary when they were elected chancellor in 1974 and 1982 respectively. Angela Merkel's closest call was in 2009, when she got 323 of 612 votes, 16 more than she needed to be named chancellor.

If a majority of parliamentarians do not vote for the chancellor candidate in the first round, a second phase of voting starts. Bundestag members may suggest other candidates, but these candidates must have the backing of at least a quarter of the Bundestag. Over the subsequent two weeks, an indefinite number of voting rounds may take place.

If no chancellor is elected at the end of 14 days, one final round of voting takes place. If a candidate then receives an absolute majority, he or she is immediately named chancellor. But if he or she only gains a plurality of votes, President Steinmeier is given seven days to decide whether to accept a so-called "minority chancellor" - who would have the same rights as a chancellor elected by an absolute majority - or to dissolve the Bundestag. If he dissolves parliament, new elections must take place within 60 days.

This article was first published in 2017.