How Germany chooses its chancellor

Agreeing on who will be Germany's next chancellor is one of the goals of coalition talks. But it's not a done deal until the Bundestag votes him or her in. DW explains how it works.

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 controls an absolute majority of the seats in the Bundestag; the new government must, of course, be able to get legislation passed by parliament.

Read more: Can the Greens and the FDP join Angela Merkel in a coalition?

Once it's clear with whom the winning party 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 names: who they want to be chancellor and to hold which positions in the cabinet.

Read more: What is the role of Germany's parliamentary opposition?

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 President Frank-Walter Steinmeier 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 hall

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.

Read more: How does the German general election work?

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.


Colorful shorthand for German coalitions

Coalitions are common under Germany's proportional representation system. To describe complex ballot outcomes, political pundits use colorful symbolism, often alluding to the flags of other nations. Coalition short-hand includes 'Jamaica,' 'Kenya,' and 'traffic light' coalitions.


'Jamaica' option - black, yellow and green

The three-way deal between the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats, whose color is yellow will not be happening at national level after the FDP called off talks. The northern state of Schleswig-Holstein currently has a "Jamaica" government, as CDU premier Daniel Günther governs with the FDP and the Greens.


Black-red coalition

Conservative black combined with transformative red is the color code when the Christian Democrats govern in a grand coalition with the Social Democrats. Yellow on these billboards alludes to Germany's tricolor flag of black, red and gold. Black tops the flag, signifying Germany's responsibility for the Holocaust.


'Pizza Connection' in Bonn, before parliament moved to Berlin

When Bonn was still Germany's capital, individual conservatives and Greens met from 1995 in its suburban Italian Sassella restaurant. Since then, the 'Pizza Connection' has become code for speculation over further links. At regional level, in Hesse's Wiesbaden assembly, Merkel's CDU and Greens have governed together since 2014. Baden-Württemburg's Greens-CDU coalition has governed since 2016.


Another untried combination: Black, red, green, symbolized by Kenya's flag

So far, a 'Kenyan' coalition has only emerged once at regional state level - last year in Saxony-Anhalt, when the SPD's vote collapsed, and the AfD took a quarter of the votes. Premier Reiner Haseloff of Merkel's conservatives forged a coalition comprising his conservative CDU, the battered SPD and the region's Greens.


'Traffic light' coalition

The market-oriented liberal FDP, whose color is yellow, has in the past generally ruled out federal coalitions sandwiched between the Social Democrats, whose color is red, and the Greens. A current example is Rhineland Palatinate's three-way regional state coalition based in Mainz and headed by Social Democrat Malu Dreyer.


Center-left combinations in three eastern states

Red-red-green coalitions exist in two German regions: since last September in Berlin city state and since 2014 in Thuringia. It's Erfurt-based government is headed by Left party premier Bodo Ramelow, seen signing (third from left). Berlin's three-way mix is headed by Social Democrat Michael Müller. Brandenburg has a two-way coalition, comprising the Social Democrats and the Left party.

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